Think Globally: The iPad’s new universal keyboard shortcuts

I’ve seen the future of the iPad, and it’s hidden under a key.

The future of an entire platform is a lot to pile on a single plastic square, but here we are. Down in the bottom left corner of Apple’s keyboards is a new key labeled with the picture of a globe. Initially intended for supporting multiple languages, in iPadOS 15 the Globe key has become something much bigger: it’s a symbol for global keyboard shortcuts.

In iPadOS 14, if you hold down the Command key, you can see a list of app-specific features and their key equivalents. It’s like a quick-reference card for keyboard shortcuts. In iPadOS 15, Apple has expanded this feature to make it more like the iPad equivalent of the Mac menu bar—not only does it list keyboard shortcuts, but it can list every command in the app, and you can click any of them to execute them. iPad apps that build out the Mac menu bar for their Catalyst version can pick this feature up for free. It’s another way that the Mac and iPad are increasingly complementing one another.

Then there’s the Globe key. Hold it down in any app in iPadOS 15, and you’ll see a different set of commands, all of which can be applied globally. (Get it?) These menus are full of shortcuts to switch to the home screen (Globe-H), open a Quick Note (Globe-Q), activate Control Center (Globe-C), and pretty much any other system-level area.

The Globe menu also contains loads of keyboard shortcuts to control multitasking. You can put apps into Split View and Slide Over, pop them back into full screen, and cycle between apps, all via Globe key shortcuts.

My first reaction upon realizing how Apple was retasking the Globe key was to wonder why we need another modifier key when Command, Control, and Option exist. It’s an embarrassment of modifiers, yes, but all of those other keys are already being used for all sorts of in-app shortcuts—I guess you could say that they act locally. The Globe key is unencumbered by any app’s conventions—it’s a free space for Apple to think globally, without any fear of colliding with individual apps.

On the Mac, systemwide shortcuts and individual app shortcuts can collide and interact in strange ways. It’s kind of a mess. On the iPad, Apple seems to be saying that global shortcuts use the Globe, and apps use the other modifiers. That makes… a lot of sense.

The potential on the iPad is enormous. It seems almost inevitable that Shortcuts will let users assign Globe-key shortcuts that will work in any app, giving users keyboard control over their automations. (In fact, I’m a little surprised this isn’t already a feature of iPadOS 15!)

It feels like it’s inevitable that Apple will add hardware and media controls to the Globe key. I’m writing this on Apple’s Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro, which is a great keyboard—but frustratingly lacks a function row. So when I want to adjust the device’s volume or brightness, pause music, or skip to the next track, I have to use Control Center. It would make sense for all of those controls to have key equivalents, and assigning them to the Globe means they won’t collide with keyboard shortcuts available in individual apps.

Clearly, there’s a lot more work to be done, but I’m excited that Apple is staking out space for keyboard shortcuts that can work across different apps. This Globe-key kid has potential. We should keep them around and see what happens next.

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