On Switching from an iPad Pro and a Macbook to a Pixelbook

The stranger and more complex story of change in my computing life is the decision to move from an iPad Pro and a Macbook to a Chromebook. My computing is complicated and I wear too many hats but what I’m talking about here is my day-to-day main portable computing device.

In late 2015, I decided to go all-in on the iPad Pro. That actually worked pretty well for a while and, for all of 2016, I didn’t have a Mac at home and relied solely on my iPad Pro for daily work. I made a lot of progress with that setup and was even able to launch a successful podcast which has almost entirely been recorded, edited and published using iOS.

My work was evolving and so was iOS. In late 2017, I was appointed Head Teacher of the school where I work, taking up the post in August 2018. That was a more significant shift in my workloads than I had perhaps anticipated - not just in the volume of work but also the type of work that my computer was required to support.

At the same time, iOS 11 had shipped and it simply broke my relationship with iOS on the iPad. There was nothing about its new multitasking system that I liked and little that I could even tolerate. From its unhelpful app-pairing feature to its devaluation of the Home Screen and overloading of the Dock, I just could not get comfortable with it at all. Then iOS 12 came along and made it even worse in some ways with its aping of iPhone X gestures and ever-finer distinctions between a little swipe up to display the dock and an ever so slightly longer swipe up to show multitasking. Touch just isn’t built for such fine distinctions.

My school is known as an “iPad school” - we were the first whole-school 1:1 iPad deployment in the world - but we have been a “Google school” even longer. We have been on what is now GSuite since it was called “Google Apps for Your Domain”. The first thing I ever did when I started at the school was to sign up for GAFYD and we have been on it ever since.

When Google Drive launched in 2012, we started making more use of it and Google Docs. In the six years since, we have really gone all-in on these apps. I was never a huge fan of web-based software but we started with one particular project where we cut so much time and effort out of the process that I couldn’t help but get interested.

That project was the process of writing report cards. Previously, every teacher used to produce and print a Pages document for their pupils. That pile of documents would get delivered to the secretary who was then responsible for dividing them up and assembling report cards from them. This process was time-consuming and hugely error prone. We replaced that with a process where I create a template file in Google Drive for each pupil and then teachers write their reports in a single shared file per pupil and then we print them all at the end. That was when I got interested in Google Docs in a big way.

Fast forward to 2018 and virtually all of the work I do at school is now in Google Docs. I don’t think I’ve created anything new outside Google Docs for a couple of years now. As I was preparing to take over as Head Teacher, more and more of my work became about higher levels of complexity, involving more data sources and requiring larger work spaces than ever before. Big spreadsheets to build timetables, school budgets, pupil information and the like.

If I can refer back to an article I wrote in 2013 called “Beyond Consumption vs Creation”, which I still think is the most coherent thing I’ve written on the topic, I observe that mainly what happened my work took me outside that boundary of complexity and duration that the iPad can support.

At the same time, Chromebooks have been on the rise. They are killing Apple in US K-12 education but it’s still not clear exactly what impact they are having on the wider market if any. It does seem obvious to me, though, that Google knows exactly where their strength lies and it actually has very little to do with ChromeOS itself.

My school runs on GSuite but we usually access it through iPads. What I have found, though, is that the GSuite iOS apps are not very good. They lack important (and sometimes basic) functionality found in the web version of GSuite and they take a long time to adopt iOS platform features.

The point, though, is that GSuite is so powerful and so much at the heart of everything I do at school that if you asked me to decide between giving up GSuite and giving up iPad, I’m afraid iPad has to go. It is for this reason that I have been vocally advocating that Apple make iOS Safari as close to a “desktop class” browser as it can be. I don’t know the technical reasons why GSuite can’t be accessed in Safari on iOS. I don’t know if the browser has limitations that mean the apps genuinely can’t run in it, or whether they could but Google just chooses not to allow it.

I’m entirely willing to believe that this isn’t Apple’s fault. That doesn’t mean it’s not their problem. Lack of feature-complete access to GSuite is, I believe, as serious a risk to Apple in K-12 as the potential lack of Photoshop and Office on Mac OS X was to its role in business back in the early 2000s.

None of this is to say that iPad and iOS has suddenly become a bad platform. It has not - although I could make a strong case that every change made to multitasking in iOS 11 worsened the experience in every way. iPad is still a good platform for the things it was good at back in 2015/16 when I was using it full time. What has really changed more than anything are my own personal computing needs and the strength of the competition.

iOS has a particular software lack in a particular sector. It just so happens that I work in that sector and I work extensively with deep features of that suite of software that iOS lacks. We might fairly ask why Apple has chosen not to compete with GSuite. It has, from time to time and piece by piece, but in no way is it a realistic proposition for a school heavily invested in GSuite to consider switching to iCloud. The concept simply doesn’t make sense. It’s not that Apple’s equivalent features are better or worse; it’s that in many cases they simply don’t exist. There are no shared folders in iCloud Drive, no organisational units, precious little control over iCloud feature availability, no auditing or security tools. Collaboration tools do exist in iWork apps but the workflow is ad-hoc and on a per-document basis. There’s nothing like Google Drive’s Team Drives feature. There are no fine-grained controls over spreadsheet editing. If we were to take the top 20 daily-actively-used features of GSuite, I don’t know if Apple’s cloud infrastructure has equivalents for almost any of them.

So, you see, my point is not that the iPad is a bad computer or that iOS is a bad operating system. Neither of these things are true. I do have a question, though, about what Apple thinks people should be buying from their product line.

Notice that the premise of this article is how I came to switch from a 12.9” iPad Pro and a 2015 MacBook to a Chromebook. It honestly seems to me that Apple might seriously expect people to own more than one £1000+ computing device just to get the benefits of both a laptop and a touch screen. Macs can do some things that an iPad can’t do - like access the full GSuite - and an iPad can do some things that a Mac can’t do. Should people really have to buy two computers from Apple to get the best of both worlds?

The Google Pixelbook I have been using seems to do a much more balanced job of providing laptop features and tablet features in one coherent device. It is virtually identical to the new 12.9” iPad Pro in terms of physical dimensions and weight. It opens like a traditional laptop with a very nice keyboard and trackpad but then folds back to become a tablet when required. It makes you wonder what might have been if Apple hadn’t been so determined to keep the Unibody MacBook Pro form factor essentially inviolate for a decade. The Google Pixelbook isn’t cheap in Chromebook terms but it’s significantly cheaper than the iPad Pro/MacBook dyad that Apple wants to sell you.

Is the Google Pixelbook a genuinely great tablet computer? No, certainly not. It’s a very good laptop that does a passable job of some kinds of tablet tasks. In tablet mode, it’s great for Netflix, YouTube, casual web browsing and that sort of thing. Would I put the Pixelbook into tablet mode to go deep on a Google Sheets document? Of course not. Having said that, I reflect on how often I used my iPad Pro in pure “tablet mode” too - it wasn’t all that often either. It seems that as laptops get more tablet-y, tablets are getting more like laptops. The Pixelbook isn’t a better laptop than a MacBook, and it isn’t a better tablet than an iPad, but this one device satisfies 98% of my computing needs in a single package. It also costs less than half of what I would need to buy from Apple to get the same set of capabilities.

As for doing “real work” on the Chromebook, I’ve been in that world for some time already. That part wasn’t even a concern for me. I had proven all that some time ago - my Macbook literally had no non-default software on it except Chrome. It effectively was a Chromebook in all but name. Sure, the Chromebook doesn’t run all the software in the world, but it runs the software that I actually need and use every day absolutely flawlessly.

One other thing that hurts to say but I believe is true is this: ChromeOS is getting better faster than iOS on iPad. Apple seems now to be on a two-year cadence for meaningful iPad-related software updates and, honestly, that’s just not fast enough. ChromeOS is moving very quickly. Probably, iOS is ahead for now but I hate waiting on an “iPad year” WWDC and then hoping that something will happen for the OS features I happen to care about. There are some parts of iOS that have lain fallow for years now - Mail, Calendar, Safari - that need some serious investment. Third party apps might fill some of the gaps but iOS doesn’t let them be full replacements for the system apps. Honestly, I'm bored waiting for progress on some of these platform basics that have been on iPad users' wish lists for literally half a decade or more now.

So where do we go next? On the one hand, we have Apple with a wildly successful phone product and a tablet product sharing the same basic OS. They also have a legacy desktop platform that's adopting mobile app APIs to fill functionality gaps. That said, after nearly a decade of iOS on iPad, we seem to still be staggering our way along the road to a full-power iOS. Every single year, we iPad users talk amongst ourselves about how “next WWDC” will fix everything - many people who have dropped laptop money on the 3rd generation iPad Pro are really buying it on more of a hope, even, than a promise that iOS 13 will make it sing.

Google, on the other hand, has a numerically successful phone platform that still has some quality challenges and an all-but-abandoned tablet strategy. They have a moderately up-and-coming hybrid laptop/tablet platform in ChromeOS that is seeing significant work and investment and is shipping significant feature updates on a regular basis. (Interestingly, said platform is also adopting mobile APIs/runtimes to fill functionality gaps.) Google also have a genuinely wonderful collaboration platform in GSuite that has become the most important software in my life bar none. Clearly, it’s become more important to me than any software that Apple makes.

Ironically, the web browser was what opened the door for the first Mac revival in the original iMac era. The lack of a fully-capable web browser is what’s closing the door on the iPad for me.

Wasn’t there an app for that?