My Hopes for Stage Manager

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 5 min read

Let's talk about Stage Manager for the iPad real quick*.

I've been talking to a bunch of people in recent days about the feature, and I wrote about it on TechRadar and here on this blog. My opinion on the feature itself is that it's got a lot of potential, but it's still very buggy and has some questionable design decisions I think Apple addresses before the final release. But that's not what you're here for, you want to hear a spicy take on the M1 controversy!

Do I trust Apple?

I've been following Apple for a long time, and I'm fortunate to know a few people who work there, and while those people have never told me anything secret about how the company works (seriously, they're very good about that), I have been able to get an idea for how the people who work on Apple software feel about what they make.

Both of these things tell me that when Apple's SVP of software engineering says they tried to get this feature on older iPads and it wasn't working out, I believe him, I believe that the version of Stage Manager that we are using right now was not able to run on older hardware as well as Apple expects.

But like…

But that's not to say that I think it's impossible to get multi-window working on older iPads, nor does it mean I think Stage Manager in some form is impossible on a few more iPads.

I just think they didn't consider it important enough to downgrade the feature to work on those devices. Was that a miscalculation? Maybe! Was it malicious? Maybe!

"Apple holds features back from devices all the time!"

This does happen, and while it's not the norm, it's 100% true that they do hold features back that would technically work quite well on older devices, so I'm not going to discount this at all.

On the other hand, there are times where they hold things back, people say they'll run just fine, a jailbreak tweak comes along that enables something on unsupported devices and it runs like ass. I jailbroke my iPhone 4 and put Siri on there…it did not go well.

I can't change your mind here, so all I can say is that just because Apple holds something back doesn't mean it's absolutely true that they did it out of spite.

"If the A12Z can run macOS on the Developer Transition Kit, it can run Stage Manager"

This is something I heard a lot, and I get it, it is a bit strange that Apple says the A12Z isn't up to snuff even though you could run a bunch of windows on that machine in macOS.

I think it's important to remember that machine was also buffed by almost 3x the RAM as the A12Z that's in the iPad Pro from 2020 (16GB vs 6GB). When RAM is mentioned by Apple as a main reason for the high requirement, then this difference should not be glanced over as a technicality.

Also, from what I've heard from devs who had the DTK, that was not a consumer-ready device, and while it benchmarked some things well, it was not delivering the seamless experience users would expect from a Mac.

"I could run multiple windows back in 2002. Are you saying the iPad Pro from 2020 is less powerful and has less RAM than that old Mac?"

No, not at all, and if we were running 20 year old apps on the iPad then this wouldn't be a concern.

Software famously uses more RAM and system resources to do things than they used to. I'm not here to argue that this is a good or bad thing, I'm just saying this is an exceptionally apples-to-oranges comparison.

For example, I can run Photoshop on my iPad today. How well do you think Photoshop for the iPad would run on that 20 year old Mac? At the time Photoshop didn't run great…do you think it's gotten more efficient since then? Color me skeptical.

Or if Photoshop isn't your jam, consider most websites today. Go find your G4 Macs and try to load modern websites on them. Outside of the formatting being all wrong and TLS likely stopping you from doing much, it's going to be a pretty miserable experience.

Despite these increases in demands from apps, our computers are far more responsive today than they were in 2002. Yes, some things were basically instantaneous back then, but most things weren't, and like most things many years ago, our brains have a way of making the past seem better than it actually was.

"The 64GB iPad Air has an M1, but can't do virtual memory swap"

This is a good point, and it does make Apple's explanation feel off. I don't have a great answer here. Maybe Stage Manager will be a bit worse on it, maybe it will be basically the same. We'll find out, but either way, in my opinion this is the best argument for why the stated requirements may not be totally accurate.

The best I can come up with is that while the 64GB M1 iPad Air doesn't do virtual memory swap, it does have the 2GB extra RAM, more CPU power, and more GPU power compared to the older devices, and those advantages are enough to make it doable. Again, this is just a guess, but it's the best potential explanation I've got to this plot hole.

"What about this jailbreak tweak, OS Experience?"

I never used this tweak back in the day, but it does show a windowing system that's running on much older iPads. Here's a video of Jeff Benjamin using it all the way back in 2014:

This is much older hardware and it's objectively running multiple apps at the same time, so that's encouraging. The performance doesn't look great, but I'm sure some people could tolerate it.

But again, this is 8 year old hardware and software, so it's a slightly hard compare, but I could definitely see this being compelling to someone who's like "this is good enough," even if Apple thinks it's not good enough to ship.

"So what do you want?"

Phew, okay, so I' not going to get into what Apple could have done…we're here, and Stage Manager is the path forward…so here's what I think Apple should do over the course of this summer beta period.

First, fix the bugs and improve some of the weird usability parts of Stage Manager. This is table stakes for a beta, so I fully expect this to get done.

Then figure out a stripped down version of Stage Manager they can release for 2020 iPad Pros, and maybe even 2018 Pros as well. Remove the external display support and limit them to 3 apps at once. Maybe even the left shelf needs to go since those could be contributing to the RAM issues. The 3 app limit basically replicates the 3 app limit in split view + slide over today, so in theory that's not more load on the system than is already possible.

I'm much less excited about Stage Manager on the iPad itself, I think it really shines on external displays, but hey, we're making cuts to get something at all.

Final thoughts

No single blog post can encapsulate all of my opinions about Apple, but those who know me know that I am more than happy to hold Apple's feet to the fire when I think they deserve it. I didn't write this post because I'm ready to defend everything the company does, I did it because I wanted to try and respond to the many arguments I've seen recently in once place since holding people at bay one tweet at a time has proven to be…challenging.

You may still disagree with everything I said about why I think Craig Federighi isn't a liar who hates you and your non-M1 iPad, and that's fine (annoying, but fine), but I hope you didn't skip the bit about what I hope Apple does this summer.

I can't tell if this anger is just in my Apple-centric bubble or if it's a bigger problem that Apple genuinely needs to address ASAP (like they did with Safari last year), but I do think that Apple will do themselves well if they can get more iPad owners access to Stage Manager, even if the version they can deliver isn't as good as their complete vision of the product.

We'll see what they do.

*That wasn't quick.