iPadOS 15: this is how it will not disappoint
It's not that hard, Apple - we only need this thing or the other thing. Choose.
So here we are, less than a month away from this year's WWDC, Apple's event about software where most of what the company plans for iOS, macOS, iPadOS and tvOS are presented in an opening keynote. This year will be somewhat different, though: after the April event where the Cupertino giant unveiled the first iPad with a desktop-class processor - the same one its newest desktops use, in fact - everyone's eyes are now turned to iPadOS. Sure, there'll be enough new things in the next iOS and macOS to guarantee numerous articles, but it feels like Apple is at crossroads with its tablets and laptops at this point in time. How it will choose to proceed on the software level will more or less dictate the direction it will be moving on a product level in the next three years at minimum.
One could write several separate articles about the whole "iPad and MacBooks and realistic productive workflows" thing, it's been already done for at least three years now after all. But an iPad just as powerful and capable as an iMac or MacBook Pro even will be out in a few days, so this whole debate now boils down to a single question: will Apple accept the fact that people interested in the M1 iPad Pro will demand desktop-class, Mac software for it sooner or later or will it just pretend that's not the case, leaving us to watch Netflix or read the news on its tablet but do the actual work on computers instead?
Apple's official stance on the matter so far has been that macOS and iPadOS are not to converge, as the result would be an operating system with too many compromises from a tablet or desktop/laptop perspective. This is debatable but not unreasonable. So how could Apple offer people that would like to replace their MacBook or even iMac with an M1 iPad Pro the access to desktop-class, Mac programs they'll ask for?
At this point in time, there are three different ways, each one with some advantages and disadvantages. Let's break them down.
An iPad Pro-only variant of the iPadOS
This has been discussed from time to time on YouTube, forum threads and other places ever since iPadOS 13 was made available (since it was the first version offering features allowing Apple's tablets to be used for actual work). An iPad Pro-only variant of iPad OS could probably work as an extension to the 14.5 one used now, enabling such "Pro" features as a proper file system, proper windowed apps and multitasking, full external monitor support and full mouse support amongst other things.
The problem is that it would be extremely difficult to make all of this work within the restrictions iPadOS has in place today. Apple wants the iPad locked down as much as possible in order to keep its simplicity of use intact. Lifting those restrictions would also mean relaxing that control Apple likes to have. Another problem caused by this approach would be the fragmentation of the iPad user base to two "camps", a "Pro" and a "non-Pro", which would not work in Apple's favor in the long run. All in all: an iPad Pro-only variant of the iPad OS is possible, but far from ideal and therefore not probable.
A dual-boot solution between iPadOS and macOS
That would be a much, much better approach to a very difficult problem and one that could work for Apple as well as for consumers. The Cupertino giant could offer the option of installing the M1 macOS on the M1 iPad Pro in the same way we used to install Windows on an Intel Mac up until recently via Bootcamp: create a separate directory, put the macOS there and reboot between the two different operating systems, the desktop one and the tablet one, at will.
This approach allows Apple to retain the level of control it wants to have on the tablet side while offering the "full-fat", computer experience of the desktop on the macOS side. Consumers would have to put up with the slight inconvenience of rebooting between operating systems (even though the M1 macOS can run full iPad apps on its desktop if need be), but it's a small price to pay in order to have access to proper popular programs and tools. Even the most affordable M1 iPad Pro offers 128GB of storage, which would be enough to accommodate a usable macOS "partition". All Apple would have to do was decide how much access would allow the macOS side to have on the "partition" of the iPad OS side. Not at all would work for most of us, honestly!
Native support for macOS programs in iPadOS
This would require more work on Apple's part but it would also allow it more control over the user experience of the M1 iPad Pro: its developers could enable full M1 Mac program support in the iPadOS 15 graphics interface itself, just as M1 Macs can use iPhone and iPad apps. Apple would also have to add a number of hardware features in order for programs to function as consumers would want them to - proper mouse support, better file system handling, flexible external monitor support etc. - but it would truly be the next best thing to having the full macOS desktop on an iPad.
It's all easier said than done, of course, as there's a number of tricky decisions that would still have to be made in order for this hybrid app/program model to work without too many compromises. Maybe Mac programs would only work full-screen. Maybe they would have to run in their own "virtual machine" environment. Maybe both. But if M1 Macs can run Intel programs real-time via an emulation software layer, then surely M1 iPad Pros would be able to run M1 Mac code without too much trouble, no?
Apple cannot choose not to choose - but it can still disappoint
The transition of the iPad Pro to M1 hardware is a move that can't be coincidental, not for a company like Apple. In other words, it will have to be followed by moves - or at least changes - in software. If the Cupertino giant did not plan to make any significant changes in that department, it could have easily put an A14X processor in the new iPad Pro and called it a day. It didn't, so something will probably be announced for the iPad OS 15 in June.
At the same time, it's worth keeping in mind that Apple does not feel particularly obligated to give fans what they ask for, no matter how much fuss they make on the Web. This is a company that makes its plans years in advance and hardly ever deviates from those unless there's good reason to do so. In other words: if Apple does not mean for the iPadOS 15 to offer some form of access to Mac software, it will not. No matter what power users or tech journalists think.
So there's always a chance that Apple will disappoint in the WWDC keynote, announcing a number of new features for the iPadOS 15 but nothing spectacular or game-changing. It may choose to keep programs to computers and apps to tablets, despite what many of us ask for, despite the fact that the company already brought apps to computers. Will it or won't it? It will be the most interesting WWDC of the last few years in any case. Counting down the days!