For a few years now, PC makers have been making laptops with touchscreens. Some can be folded into tablets, some not, but the trend has been prevalent enough for Microsoft to rethink its entire strategy circa Windows 7 and optimize its desktop OS to work in two different modes: desktop and tablet mode.
Opinions on how well that works vary; personally, I’ve never found it elegant enough for daily usage.
Apple appears to agree; the company stubbornly refused to add a touchscreen to any of its laptops (for power users, it’s offering the iPad Pro line, but it’s just not the same as a MacBook). At first, many thought it would be a case of Apple adding a feature two years later than everyone else and then calling it its own invention, but it was soon apparent that Apple wants to keep its touch-oriented iOS and mouse-and-keyboard-oriented macOS separate.
And now, with its Touch Bar, a new, customizable OLED strip of a screen, nested between the new MacBook Pro’s keyboard and screen, it appears Apple has completely given up on melding iOS and macOS into one, as well as ever adding a touchscreen to any of its laptops.
It’s a different approach. The Touch Bar conforms to your needs and everything on it is designed to be operated with a finger. As you use it, the content on the screen remains the same; the icons don’t need to get bigger so you can tap on them, and you don’t need to leave greasy fingerprint smudges on your laptop’s display.
To me, what Apple has done with the Touch Bar was impressive. I expected customizable keys and notifications, and perhaps a fingerprint scanner. But you can use the Touch Bar to edit videos, add real-time sound effects during a DJ session. Third party developers can create custom controls for the Touch Bar. Can you do all that with a regular touchscreen? Yes, but the app on the screen has to change, so the core experience is altered. The difference is subtle but important. The Touch Bar is an additional tool; it’s not an integral part of your app. You don’t really have to use the it if you don’t like it — Photoshop and Premiere work just fine without it.
Conceptually, however, the Touch Bar feels like a crutch; instead of making the entire screen touch-friendly, Apple added a little touchscreen below it, replacing the (now truly obsolete) hardware function keys. Some of my colleagues at Mashable have a view that’s opposite of mine — that this is a step towards Apple implementing a touchscreen in the future.
But I just don’t see it. Apple places a lot of weight on usability and user-friendliness. Making the MacBook’s screen touch-friendly was trivial, at least conceptually; Apple could’ve done it years ago if it wanted to. But I feel that, somewhere along the line, the company decided that the logical thing to do — to turn the laptop’s screen into a touchscreen — is not the best thing to do. The world of mice and keyboards cannot easily mix with the one with touchscreens; too many compromises are needed to make that work.
Could Apple be on the wrong path here? It’s possible. I know plenty of people that are happy with their Surfaces and Yogas. Perhaps some future iteration of a tablet/laptop hybrid, coupled with Windows, will really operate as seamlessly as it does in Microsoft’s promo videos.
And of course, Apple is free to change its mind down the road. Perhaps some future MacBook Pro will have both a Touch Bar and a touchscreen, or maybe, as this Apple Patent predicts, it’ll entirely replace the keyboard with a touch-sensitive surface.
For now, however, PC users (and that’s all of us, really) will be heading in two distinctly different directions. Windows users will go the way of the touchscreen, while Apple enthusiasts will have a little touchscreen beneath the actual screen. And that’s OK. In the end, it’s the users who will decide which approach works better.