Earlier this week Apple achieved a wonder: It made the iPad Pro exciting again. The new tablet is a USB-C-powered beast that plays nice with external gadgets without the need for dongles, and it comes with an updated, wirelessly charged Apple Pencil that checks off many of the boxes on our wishlist.

But it didn’t take long for the implications of this design shift to settle in. You can’t use the older Apple Pencil with the new iPad Pro, and you can’t use the new Pencil with the older models. It all looked too much like “Apple being Apple,” as some critics might say, as the Apple Pencil’s new design forces iPad Pro owners to buy a new version of a device they probably already bought within the last year or two.

I say everyone needs to calm down.

The lack of backward compatibility for the new Apple Pencil points to a change in Apple’s design philosophy that will be better for us and the company in the long run. It’s a necessary change that tidies up Apple’s recent designs, and it steers us closer to a future Apple ecosystem that’s free of dongles and mismatched cords. The split hurts, yes, but sometimes a clean break is for the best.

Erasing past mistakes

The iPad wasn’t originally designed with the Apple Pencil in mind, which led to the sloppiness we associated with the stylus’s design at launch. Even fans of the original Apple Pencil (such as myself) admitted it had problems. In an attempt to cut down on the need to carry cords, charging the stylus involved jamming a hidden male Lightning connector into the iPad’s female port. You were usually best off leaving both the tablet and stylus alone while this graceless copulation took place. You also had to keep track of the magnetic cap that normally covered the connector, as it had a bad habit of vanishing during these charging sessions.

apple pencil chargingLeif Johnson/IDG

The coolest industrial design in the world.

The new Apple Pencil and iPad Pro suffer none of that awkwardness. The new stylus starts charging wirelessly when you snap its flat edge to the many magnets surrounding the iPad’s rim (thereby also solving the problem of having no place to stow it), and it also eliminates the need to keep track of a cap. It’s elegant—a quality we should always expect from Apple—and in a perfect world it would have been like this from the start.

That’s not the main reason why the older Pencil won’t pair with the new iPad Pro. For that, the blame shifts to USB-C. I have little doubt that the older Apple Pencil would still have worked with the new iPad Pro if Apple had used a Lightning port. But Apple has been saying that “USB-C is the future” for years now, and the 2018 iPad Pro shows that Apple is taking that vision seriously within its own ecosystem.

It’s a “Pro” device that’s meant to last for a few years, and it’s thus designed with a USB-C dominated future in mind. You can now easily plug in USB-C peripherals without the need for a dongle, you can charge it with your Mac’s charger, the iPad itself can even charge your iPhone, and I’d be willing to bet that next year’s iPhone will come with a USB-C port as well. The future is basically here, Apple seems to be saying, so why delay it any longer?





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