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Explaining Stage Manager’s M1 iPad Requirement

iPadOS 16 offers a mix of long-awaited features (see “Ten “It’s About Time” Features from WWDC 2022,” 6 June 2022), as well as others that left us scratching our heads (“Seven Head-Scratching Features from WWDC 2022,” 13 June 2022). In many ways, its marquee feature is Stage Manager, which adds a more familiar, albeit somewhat limited, windowing system to the iPad.

There’s just one problem: it requires a high-end iPad with an M1 chip (“The Real System Requirements for Apple’s 2022 Operating Systems,” 9 June 2022). That includes just three current models: the fifth-generation Pad Air, the fifth-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro, and the third-generation 11-inch iPad Pro. (Stage Manager also works on all Macs that can run macOS 13 Ventura, but even Apple expects the vast majority of Mac users will stick with years of working habits over Stage Manager’s new paradigm.)

Stage Manager in iPadOS 16

Many users, especially those with recent non-M1 iPads, aren’t happy, and Apple has been on a damage control tour explaining its rationale.

Apple’s Explanation: Stage Manager Needs M1 Performance

Apple first responded to the controversy in a statement to YouTuber and veteran Apple commentator Rene Ritchie:

Stage Manager is a fully integrated experience that provides all-new windowing experience that is incredibly fast and responsive and allow users to run 8 apps simultaneously across iPad and an external display with up to 6K resolution. Delivering this experience with the immediacy users expect from iPad’s touch-first experience requires large internal memory, incredibly fast storage, and flexible external display I/O, all of which are delivered by iPads with the M1 chip.

In short, Apple says that Stage Manager won’t run on a non-M1 Apple chip. Or at least run well, as Apple’s Craig Federighi explained to Forbes:

We began some of our prototyping involving those systems and it became apparent early on that we couldn’t deliver the experience that that we were designing toward with them. Certainly, we would love to bring any new experience to every device we can, but we also don’t want to hold back the definition of a new experience and not create the best foundation for the future in that experience. And we really could only do that by building on the M1.

Federighi reemphasized responsiveness to TechCrunch:

Building to M1 was critical as well. From the start, the iPad has always maintained this extremely high standard for responsiveness and interactivity. That directness of interaction in that every app can respond to every touch instantaneously, as if you are touching the real thing underneath the screen. And I think it’s hard sometimes for people to appreciate the technical constraints involved in achieving that.

In short: while Macs can get away with being a little laggy at times, there are no such affordances on the iPad, where the touch interface requires instantaneous response to maintain the illusion that you’re interacting with real objects rather than virtual representations. We’re used to the occasional beachball or pointer stutter on the Mac, but Apple has worked hard to eliminate such issues from the iPad experience. Federighi said that Apple struggled to maintain that level of responsiveness with multiple onscreen apps:

And as you add multiple apps into play, and large amounts of screen real estate, you have to make sure that any one of those apps can respond instantaneously to touch in a way that you don’t have that expectation with a desktop app. Indirect manipulation gives you some slack there, so it’s a different set of constraints.

On a more technical level, he noted:

It’s only the M1 iPads that combined the high DRAM capacity with very high capacity, high performance NAND that allows our virtual memory swap to be super fast. Now that we’re letting you have up to four apps on a panel plus another four — up to eight apps to be instantaneously responsive and have plenty of memory, we just don’t have that ability on the other systems.

Stage Manager allows up to four open apps on an iPad at once, but it also allows you to extend that desktop to another four apps on an external display. Theoretically, Apple could remove that external display support from Stage Manager on lower-powered iPads, but Apple considers it an essential core of Stage Manager. Federighi continued:

We also view Stage Manager as a total experience that involves external display connectivity. And the IO on the M1 supports connectivity that our previous iPads don’t, it can drive 4K, 5K, 6K displays, it can drive them at scaled resolutions. We can’t do that on other iPads.

Finally, you can partially blame the requirement on what the venerable email client Eudora called “trendy 3D junk,” though Federighi couched it in different terms:

We really designed Stage Manager to take full advantage [of the M1]. If you look at the way the apps tilt and shadow and how they animate in and out. To do that at super high frame rates, across very large displays and multiple displays, requires the peak of graphics performance that no one else can deliver.

Could Apple Have Designed Stage Manager to Work on Lesser iPads?

There has been a debate in Apple enthusiast circles about whether Stage Manager truly wouldn’t work on non-M1 iPads or if Apple designed it partly to sell more high-end iPads. Carefully reading Federighi’s statements, I believe both are true. In his TechCrunch interview, Federighi made it clear that Apple didn’t want to limit the feature in any way and is aiming at the future instead of the past:

When you put all this together, we can’t deliver the full Stage Manager experience on any lesser system. I mean, we would love to make it available everywhere we can. But this is what it requires. This is the experience we’re going to carry into the future. We didn’t want to constrain our design to something lesser, we’re setting the benchmark for the future.

In the bluntest terms: Apple could have engineered Stage Manager to work on non-M1 iPads; it just didn’t want to degrade the overall experience to make that happen. This isn’t necessarily nefarious plotting on Apple’s part but rather the standard way Apple makes business decisions. From Apple’s perspective, it’s a total win. Stage Manager:

  • Provides a rich multitasking experience that makes people want iPads
  • Encourages users with non-M1 iPads to upgrade
  • Justifies the purchase of customers who already own M1 iPads

Apple uses this line of thinking in many areas. For example, its App Tracking Transparency feature, which lets users prevent apps from tracking their behaviors, is a huge privacy win and a strong selling point for the Apple ecosystem. It also happens to weaken competitors like Facebook and strengthen Apple’s own advertising business.

How Apple Could Soothe Developers (And Beleaguered Tech Authors)

Most iPad users aren’t aware of the controversy and will never miss Stage Manager. The iPad gives non-technical users a simple, capable computing device. On the other hand, power users may already own a high-end iPad or do much of their work on a full-featured Mac. Stage Manager is a premium feature aimed at iPad power users, and those who lack an M1 iPad now have reason to invest in one for their next upgrade.

However, developers may resent the M1 requirement even more than users. Developer Steve Troughton-Smith points out that most developers do not own an M1 iPad and the iOS Simulator doesn’t officially support Stage Manager, which will make it hard to optimize apps for Stage Manager. M1 iPad owners may be disappointed to find that Stage Manager doesn’t immediately work as expected with their favorite third-party apps.

Troughton-Smith suggests that Apple should let beta testers enable Stage Manager on non-M1 iPads. I fully support that idea for several reasons:

  • More developers would be able to optimize their apps to work well with Stage Manager, which would mean happier M1 iPad owners.
  • Assuming Apple is being truthful about Stage Manager’s performance needs, it would demonstrate that Stage Manager truly requires an M1 chip.
  • Beta testers on unsupported iPads will understand if it works poorly because it’s a beta.
  • It would let poor, beleaguered tech authors like me document the feature.

Of course, Apple doesn’t care about the last point and often seems to see independent writers as unwelcome competition. But as it stands, I’m in a sticky spot with my follow-up to Take Control of iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, as I only have a base-model iPad from last year, which I bought to test features that required an A12 Bionic. I don’t use my iPad for much apart from testing, so I’m torn as to whether to upgrade, guess how it works based on videos, buy and return an M1 iPad within the 14-day window, or camp out at a distant Apple Store for an afternoon.

Stage Manager’s Origins

Amusingly, it turns out that Stage Manager was originally conceived back in 2006 as a prototype called “shrinkydink,” as documented by a former Apple developer who posted screenshots to show how little it has changed from its initial design. The original post has been taken down (presumably at the behest of Apple Legal), but you can still view an archived version.

shrinkydink

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Comments About Explaining Stage Manager’s M1 iPad Requirement

Notable Replies

  1. If I want conspiracy theories, I can find those elsewhere. Disappointed to see this pablum here.

  2. Perhaps read the article, rather than assuming anything based on the teaser.

  3. It occurs to me that another reason for requiring an M1 may be the use of an extended (not mirrored) desktop.

    I’ve noticed that until now, iOS has only supported mirroring. That is, where all screens show the same image - the one on the device’s main panel. This may well be a limit of the A-series SoCs. Their GPUs may be designed for only one screen.

    The M1 SoC, on the other hand, is known to have built-in support for at least two displays. (e.g. an M1 laptop supports one external display in addition to the built-in screen and an M1 mini supports two displays) So an M1-based iPad definitely has the hardware needed to support two non-mirrored screens, which is clearly a prerequisite for this particular feature.

    Now, could an A-series iPad run Stage Manager without a 2-display GPU (panel-only or with mirroring)? Probably, but this feature seems aimed at those users who are using iPads as a desktop/laptop replacement (I know many such people where I work - mostly managers and directors), and those are the kind of power users who won’t be happy with just mirroring when their iPad is docked.

  4. Apple indeed built in an option to run it on non-M1 iPads. Not that this accessible to anyone outside of Apple right now. But it does support the claim that it was tested on lesser hardware.

  5. Quoting Apple’s Craig Federighi, Josh Centers wrote

    On an iPad Air 4th gen, running iPadOS 15.4.1 (and I think earlier iPadOS) and iPadOS 15.5, Numbers will sometimes be completely unresponsive for 1 to 4 seconds when I switch to it. I hadn’t thought much about it until I read Josh’s article, accepting it as the performance that the iPad was meant to deliver, but it certainly does not match the standard that Federighi presented. And that’s using an Apple app on a newer iPad.

  6. In short: while Macs can get away with being a little laggy at times, there are no such affordances on the iPad, where the touch interface requires instantaneous response to maintain the illusion that you’re interacting with real objects rather than virtual representations.

    I don’t like Apple’s suggestion that laggy behavior on a Mac is somehow OK, but not on iPad. Just because it’s a mouse pointer trying to drag an object instead of a finger, there can’t be any more lag. That Federighi argument is complete nonsense. In my line of work, the iPad is a toy compared to a Mac. If there’s one system where I expect maximum resources deployed and minimal disturbance, it’s the Mac. That’s what gets work done and pays for the bills. I get where Apple is going with this, but their aspirational goals (or at least their messaging on the topic) obviously need to be adjusted.

  7. Is this with Numbers by itself, or with a particularly large sheet open? I don’t really use it on the iPad, but on my older 10.5-inch iPad Pro, I see nothing like this. And more to the point, what Federighi is saying is that it’s the little things that need to be really responsive, not so much the initial launch/switch, when there very well may be some swapping. Milliseconds of lag when you’re actually interacting with onscreen objects is really noticeable, and while it’s probably unavoidable in every situation, it’s entirely reasonable for Apple to want to to minimize it as much as possible with a brand new marquee feature.

    I think that was more Josh’s interpretation/extension of what Apple was saying. It’s certainly a nice idea that the Mac has a highly responsive interface, but I think we all know it’s just not always the case. That’s why the M1 Macs were such a revelation—they felt faster in little ways where we’d grown accustomed to a half-beat wait in the past. And similarly, whenever there’s one of these multiple monitor technologies that uses USB or Wi-Fi, it always feels slightly off, because things just don’t work at the speed we expect. It’s fractions of a second, but it’s still painfully obvious.

    So it makes sense to me that Apple would aspire to avoid releasing a marquee feature that would feel off when used on an older iPad. I’m sure the engineers tested it heavily, but the last thing they want is for it to get a reputation for being slow because reviewers used it on the lowest-end hardware it supported.

  8. Sure, but now they have what seems like half the social media bubble b*tching and moaning about how their $1500 iPad Pro isn’t supported. I’m not sure one is clearly so much better than the other.

    I personally don’t really care about Stage Manager and I don’t care about which iPad supports it or not, but I am surprised how it appears once again Apple seems to have stepped into something blissfully not anticipating how things would play out for them publicly. It does remind me a bit of the CSAM episode. Of course, harsher observers would perhaps point out that this is a long Apple tradition certainly going back to Steve times (they’re holding it wrong). :wink:

  9. “Large” is subjective; the open document does have six tabs and the four largest tabs average about 4500 cells with content and 6000 cells between the upper left cell and the cell in the rightmost column with content and bottom row with content. (The other two tabs are much smaller, and there is no referencing from one tab to another. For that matter, hardly any cell contains a formula; it’s almost all static data.)

    I didn’t get the sense that Federighi was limiting his comments to only some aspects of iPad operation. However, your interpretation makes sense, even if it wasn’t explicitly stated.

  10. Bitchin’ and moanin’ at Apple is pretty much the industry standard:

    • The iMac doesn’t have a floppy disk? Then, it’s not a real computer.
    • Apple is going to have to make a real netbook if they want to stay relevant as a company.
    • The iPad is a failure. The only thing it’s good for is browsing the web on a toilet.
    • The iPhone doesn’t have a physical keyboard! No one is going to want it.
    • There’s no slot for a memory card on the iPhone and you can’t replace the battery: Utter failure!
    • If the iPhone doesn’t run Flash, everyone is going to buy Android because Flash is an important part of the Internet!

    If Apple truly wants to force you to buy new hardware, they’d do what Android does: stop supporting systems that are more than a few years old.

  11. That’s beside the point.

    It’s not about the complaining, it’s about Apple completely misjudging how the public will perceive their announcements.

    Instead of websites and magazines and YouTube talking about this awesome greatest ever new feature for iPad OS that will make the iPad more like a real computer, in reality the world is discussing that almost every iPad owner and their dog will be missing out.

  12. I’m looking forward to it but in the context of better multitasking, overlapping windows, a higher resolution and multiple displays. It’ll help manage that for sure.

    I like the idea of docking windows and tapping them back out again. I still miss a system 7 app Sticky Windows which docked open windows and apps to tabs on the edge of the screen.

  13. On my iPad Air 4 I regularly experience 1-4 second lags when I open Settings. The screen will display the Battery panel (which I last used) on the right while General is highlighted in the left pane. All the while, repeated tapping on Apple ID settings (at the top of the left pane) does absolutely nothing for those 1-4 seconds.

    This issue has started for me after upgrading to iPadOS 15.5, I do not remember having it before that. I have not noticed any such lag with Numbers (or other apps) but I don’t have any large spreadsheets.

  14. It’s no win all the way down.

    If Apple allowed non-M1 iPads to do some of Stage Manager features, but not others, the press would be whining about how Stage Manager isn’t completely supported on older iPads. If they implemented all the features and it was too slow, that would be the story.

    The best way to handle this is let the press grumble. In a couple of years when more people have M1 iPads Stage Manager will be the feature that makes the iPad a fully fledged computer that can replace a standard desktop system.

  15. Which is why I originally said

    I’m not sure one is clearly so much better than the other.

    They’ll see complaints either way. They should not have been surprised by it is my point. Their reaction does not appear to indicate they were aware they were getting into this situation, let alone well prepared. After CSAM, I would have expected better preparedness in terms of messaging.

  16. As an owner of a 256GB 2020 12.9" model, it is a bit annoying TBH. Although, as I’m personally not all that enamoured with iPads as serious work machines for a number of obvious reasons we all know about, I doubt such a feature would somehow make all the difference to me.

    So really, outside of the hullabaloo, unless you’re actually strongly thinking the feature will suddenly make your iPad life all that much better, I really doubt there’s much worth getting upset about, as I just don’t think it will. It’s more of Apple’s attempts at a small bandage, rather than a wholesale fix of iPadOS’s fundamental failings.

    Overall, I really don’t think Apple has much of a clue on where they’re taking iPadOS, as if they thought they were releasing such a headline feature in a couple of OS’s time, shouldn’t they have added more RAM to the 2020 and possibly the 2018 models, instead of limiting the amounts (especially on the lower storage sizes) for cost cutting measures. That seems like an oversight they simply wouldn’t have made if they knew where they were going with features well ahead of time.

  17. I agree. And I also think that MacBooks and Pros are very successful products that contribute greatly to Apple’s revenue. They wouldn’t have loaded the new stuff with super duper M2 chips and better batteries if this were not the case. This is probably the reason why they were plugging how superior the MacBook Pros will be for producing high end graphics, videos, gaming, etc. But the MBPs aren’t quite as powerful and capable as the Mac Pro. And the price of the new MacBook Pros is not near the price of the Mac Pros. So I suspect Apple will be revealing an M2 or M3 Mac Pro in the not too distant future, with a commensurate price bump. Hasta la vista Intel chips.

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