The enterprise angle on the 2020 MacBook Air and iPadOS 13.4 trackpad support

Both the iPad software and hardware are moving closer to the realm of laptop territory, while staying true to their tablet roots. Is this the ultimate 2-in-1?

Coronavirus and enabling work from home have been the talk of the EUC industry for the last few weeks. While times are uncertain, it’s been inspiring to see people from all across our space step up in many ways.

At the same time, it also helps to take our mind off of things and focus on business as usual when possible. To that end, it was nice to see Apple make a significant set of product announcements last week.

Apple shared news of a new MacBook Air, a new iPad Pro, keyboard and mouse support in iPadOS 13.4, and a new iPad keyboard case with a trackpad called the Magic Keyboard. Apple also announced updates to the Mac Mini and a new pair of Beats headphones.

There are several EUC angles in these announcements, so there’s a lot for us to talk about.

The MacBook for the next wave of enterprise users

First, there’s the new MacBook Air. For the basic outline, I like the Daring Fireball review.

This new retina MacBook Air now starts at $999 ($899 for EDU), down from $1099 (initially $1199) for the previous version. It has the new scissor mechanism keyboard, which should be more popular and reliable, and starts with 256GB of storage, up from 128GB. The base model just has a dual-core i3 processor, but you can get a quad-core i5 at $1,099.

The result is that now MacBook choices for most customers are much easier. Previously, customers would have been worried about the keyboard, or wondering if they should go with the Pro, even though they might have been unsure about the value of the Touch Bar, or put off by the price. Now it’s a no-brainer: most people should be happy with one of the new MacBook Air models.

This is important for the enterprise because more companies have been deploying Macs than ever before. Just look at how Jamf is growing, the wave of Mac management startups out there, and the investments that VMware and MobileIron are making. Any company that was considering a Mac deployment should be thrilled to have this new MacBook Air option—it’s just a well-timed option for the enterprise.

iPad Pro: Now the ultimate thin client?

Okay, I’m sort of joking about the ultimate thin client thing, but the EUC community loves to talk about the use cases for different types of devices.

Apple’s announcement has a few parts, and again, I’ll link to the Daring Fireball summary.

The iPad Pro got updated with a new processor, a dual lens camera, a LiDAR sensor, and better mics. But what we really care about are iPadOS 13.4 and the new keyboard. iPadOS 13.4, which should be out today, brings real support for trackpads and mice (here’s how it works). The new Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro has real backlit keys, a trackpad, an adjustable screen angle, and support for charging the iPad via USB-C. It will be out in May. The full specifications haven’t been published, but you can see images in Apple’s press release.

I should point out that most iPads being deployed by enterprises and schools are the base model iPad. It has plenty of power for all sorts of use cases, and it’s been priced at $329 for the last few years. iPad Pros, on the other hand, tend to be personal devices brought in through BYOD programs. So, it’s more of a matter of opinion than an enterprise strategy issue.

Either way, there are plenty of arguments about last week’s iPad news, which break down in predictable ways. There are headlines like “Apple finally admits Microsoft was right about tablets” (from The Verge), and “Apple's iPad Pro becomes more like a Surface, and that's a problem for Microsoft” (from Windows Central).

Most people already decided years ago whether they like the iPad or the Microsoft Surface better, but I’d like to analyze the news in my own way. In particular, I think some arguments don’t pay enough attention to the ways that the devices (especially hardware) are still different.

Hardware

As I wrote in my review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4, we have to think about what a 2-in-1 hybrid laptop/tablet is trying to be.

If a device was really the best of both worlds, then it would be as thin, light, smooth, and easy to hold when you’re using it as a tablet, with a keyboard that stays out of the way when you don’t need it. And when you’re using it as a laptop, it would also be perfectly balanced and stable, with a well laid out keyboard and plenty of space for a trackpad.

But in the real world, the constraints of geometry, engineering, and costs mean that devices have to make some compromises. For example, the Microsoft Surface keyboard covers have space for a trackpad, but the compromise is that the Surface has to have a kickstand, and the keyboard hinge moves freely, so it can be hard to use in your lap. Apple’s previous flagship keyboard, the Smart Folio Keyboard for iPad Pro, does have a solid base, but no space for a trackpad.

Now look at the new Apple Magic Keyboard. It has both a solid base and space for a track pad like a laptop, and the iPad Pro itself doesn’t have to make any compromises—it’s still an awesome tablet. We’ll see how it performs in real life, but on paper, this does the best job yet of being a 2-in-1 hybrid device. Depending on your price sensitivity, you could say that instead of compromising on engineering or geometry, they compromised on cost—it starts at $299.

As a side note, Apple is now making first-party keyboards for all models of iPad, including the $329 base model iPad, and Logitech is making a keyboard with a trackpad (albeit with a kickstand) for the base model iPad and iPad Air. The net is that today, there are many affordable and attractive options for iPads with keyboards and trackpads, so I have the feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot more of these.

Software for 2-in-1 laptop/tablets

As users, we again want the best of both worlds for the operating systems on our 2-in-1 devices, but there are also tough compromises here. We saw with Windows 8 that just sticking a touch-based environment alongside a desktop environment can be confusing. And Tim Cook famously said that we don’t want a toaster/fridge combo. So, how have the compromises been handled?

Windows 10 sticks closer to the desktop side, and anecdotally, it seems like most people still use the Microsoft Surface as a laptop much more than as a tablet. With the iPad, Apple sticks closer to a tablet UI. Personally, I still don’t find iPadOS multitasking to be very intuitive, though that hasn’t stopped plenty of folks from using iPads with a keyboard.

Now that iPadOS 13.4 has trackpad and mouse support, Apple is venturing closer to the realm of a true hybrid device. This will probably allow the iPad Pro to work for even more laptop-like use cases. (Note that iPadOS 13.4 will support trackpads and mice on all iPad models, not just the Pro, so anyone can try this out.)

iPad thin clients

The argument about when to use a remote app versus when to use a native tablet app has completely transformed since the early days—just look at the last 10 years’ worth of articles about desktop virtualization and enterprise mobility here on BrianMadden.com. But when I saw the news about trackpads and mice in iPadOS 13.4, I couldn’t help but think, “Awesome! I wonder how long it will be until all the remote desktop clients use it?”

We should give a shout out to the Citrix X1 mouse and the Swiftpoint GT mouse, which VMware Horizon supports. Support had to be implemented at the app level, but now we can move on. As of Monday afternoon, I wasn’t able to find any public developer documentation on supporting trackpads and mice in iPadOS, but this will be one of my first questions the next time I talk to VMware or Citrix.

Final thoughts

In my last article about 2-in-1 devices, I wrote that “the iPad Pro is just too far on the tablet end of the spectrum to provide anything close to a laptop experience.” Clearly, the Magic Keyboard and iPadOS have just taken a big step over towards the laptop side, while still retaining all the good aspects of their tablet origins.

Stepping back to the bigger picture, EUC technology is now in a place where we can support all types of devices. This in turn helps Apple, Microsoft, Google, Samsung, and others as they offer different types of device, and helps users work however they prefer.

Dig Deeper on Apple iOS in the enterprise

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VERY EXICTING TIMES!
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