Apple this week announced iPadOS 16 with significant changes to how the iPad works, especially for M1 iPads, which now have real multitasking with windows and support for external displays. In addition to these features, iPadOS 16 also for the first time allows device makers to create drivers for iPad with the new “DriverKit” API.
DriverKit is a framework originally created for the Mac that lets device makers develop drivers to make their products fully compatible with macOS. The API was introduced in macOS Catalina to replace kernel extensions, as DriverKit is an app extension that runs in user space without access to all system privileges to ensure system security and integrity.
This year, Apple is bringing DriverKit to the iPad with iPadOS 16, so that device and accessory makers can also create specific drivers to make their products compatible with the iPad.
For now, the DriverKit API in iPadOS 16 supports USB, PCI, and audio devices. Since this API is also available on the Mac, developers who have created macOS drivers that are ready for Apple Silicon can easily port them to the iPad. A driver can be distributed through the App Store as a regular app, but its capabilities extend to other apps.
As an example, having DriverKit on iPadOS will allow users to connect Thunderbolt audio interfaces on the iPad for the first time. This will also work for less complex devices, such as a USB microphone.
When a user installs a new driver in iPadOS, it must be enabled manually in the Settings app. Drivers can be toggled on or off by the user at any time, and Apple says that each driver only works while the external device is connected to the iPad.
Unfortunately, according to Apple, DriverKit requires an iPad with an M1 chip. This means that even with iPadOS 16, these drivers won’t work with older iPad models or even with the current generation iPad mini, which is powered by the A15 chip.
While the reasons are unclear, this may not be directly related to the chip, but rather to the fact that only the M1 iPad Pro supports Thunderbolt connection, while iPad Air 5 has a faster USB 3.1 Gen 2 port despite lacking Thunderbolt. Meanwhile, other USB-C iPad models are based on the 3.1 Gen 1 standard, while the base model iPad with Lightning connector still relies on the old USB 2.0 standard.
Still, this is great news for iPad users as they will now have access to a new range of accessories that simply weren’t compatible with iPadOS before.
iPadOS 16 will be available next month as a public beta. Its official release is expected this fall. Developers can now try out the iPadOS 16 beta by downloading it from the Apple Developer website.
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