Where does my MacBook Air leave my tablets? Or my MacBook Pro, for that matter?

Will the MacBook Air change the way schools are currently deploying iPads as the 1:1 platform of choice?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

Regular readers will know that I like Macs, but am no Apple fanboi. In general, for educational purposes, I struggle to rationalize the price points of their laptops and desktops and have seen too many iPad deployments go awry without firm pedagogical frameworks and limited understanding of how to manage an app model in the educational enterprise. However, my new MacBook Air is a pretty incredible computer. So incredible that I have to wonder, both personally and in education, where it leaves iPads? And, for that matter, the MacBook Pros that have attracted many users not willing to make the compromises associated with older MacBooks.

For some time now, white MacBooks have been the laptops of choice for schools looking at Mac deployments. While they are still available in Apple's Education Store, it's pretty hard to justify slower, heavier, less durable machines when $50 extra dollars buys a base Air. Sure, some settings will require an optical drive or longer battery life, but the 11" Air is remarkable in both its kid-friendly size, weight, and aluminum-case-flash-storage durability, and full-size keyboard that can accommodate even large-handed gym teachers.

This really isn't about the white MacBooks, though. Those Core 2 Duo-bearing workhorses will go by the wayside. What I wonder more about is whether, in many educational settings, the Air isn't a better choice than an iPad. There's little difference in weight, size, or time to boot, and the Air gives a full operating system with support for a variety of applications (instead of just apps). No matter how good the virtual keyboard on an iPad, it's hard to beat the backlit physical keyboard on the Air (in fact, the keyboard is competitive with anything else on the market, including the best from Lenovo's ThinkPad series. And, of course, they can access Flash web content as easily as they can run PowerPoint, neither of which can be said for the iPad.

At the same time, many people (including teachers and administrators) bought MacBook Pros to leverage faster processors, aluminum cases, and other peripheral options, even if they weren't the content production "pros" at which the line is targeted. Because the Air's new embedded graphics are far more capable than those on the old white MacBooks, many who upgraded to MBPs in the past won't need to the next time they buy a Mac. The Air, especially when combined with a larger external monitor or projector (as they often will be in classroom settings), has more than enough horsepower for even power user teachers.

So as I sit typing this on my Air, my iPad 2 and MacBook Pro are sitting on my desk next to me, looking at me with betrayal in their Facetime cameras. My Xoom tablet is also a bit sullen, although its Android OS at least gets it a bit more play from me (unlike a lot of reviewers, I'm a big fan of Honeycomb). The Air, though, has replaced both of my tablets as my constant computing companions (say that 10 times fast). Of course, I'm a writer and marketer by trade. I make my living by being able to write very quickly, whenever and wherever I need to. Student use cases are obviously different.

Next: And there's the answer to my question »

Which, at least partially, answers my questions. iPad deployments aren't going anywhere in schools for a couple of reasons, regardless of my own changed usage pattern for my tablets:

  1. Mac OS X Lion Server (which I just installed on that grumpy, neglected MacBook Pro, much to its aluminum delight) is a $50 app now for any Lion-running Mac and provides easy management tools for iOS devices
  2. iPads have awesome battery life and facilitate micromobility in ways that even the lightest of laptops can't
  3. An educational ecosystem and set of pedagogical approaches is emerging quickly around the use of tablets, making the use of full desktop operating systems less important in many K12 settings
  4. The touch interface (both for a virtual keyboard and touch applications) is completely natural for most students and most students aren't professional writers. It's the content consumption that's important for them, far more so than the creation, although content creation in terms of videos, podcasts, and the like is increasingly efficient and effective on tablets, especially as apps optimized for the touch interface mature
  5. iPads, though not cheap, are roughly the price of high-end netbooks and low-end laptops and are about half the price of the cheapest Air
  6. E-textbooks and related rich, interactive content like Cengage's MindTap are being optimized for tablets (especially the iPad as the market share leader), which lend themselves to reading and interacting with print and multimedia in ways that laptops simply don't.

For me, that MacBook Pro is now my primary server and my iPad alternates with my Xoom as my primary e-reader and web surfing machine. When I simply need to read, research, watch, or listen, I'll still take a tablet over my MacBook Air. In fact, more often than not, both my Air and Xoom end up in my bag, meaning that, between the two, I can go for a very long time without power, but with access to the web and any documents I'm creating or producing.
There will no doubt be plenty of schools who hop on the Air bandwagon, and for good reason. More than a few diehard PC fans have purchased Airs for their combination of performance and usability (even if they are running Windows on them via Boot Camp).
And continuing investment in both the ultrabook and tablet categories mean that we're going to see even more choice and competition in these markets. While there will be some cross-pollination and a bit of mutual cannibalism, there is literally and figuratively room in most bags for a light, snappy laptop and a robust tablet.

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