For the company that has led the world in touch-based interfaces – thanks to the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch – it remains something of a mystery why none of Apple’s Macs have adopted this useful feature.
Well, maybe mystery is too strong a term, as Tim Cook and others have justified the approach over the years by claiming in a 2012 earnings call that the addition of touch to the Mac would be akin to a “fridge-toaster” combination, while Steve Jobs suggested in 2010 that using a touch screen Mac would make you feel like “your arm wants to fall off”.
As Jobs explained: “We’ve done tons of user testing on this… and it turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical. It gives great demo, but after a short period of time you start to fatigue, and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off.”
But does that thinking really still hold water? In this article we look at why Apple needs a touchscreen Mac and whether Apple is coming around to the idea that Macs should have touchscreens.
When will Apple release a touchscreen Mac?
As recently as 2018 Apple was still making it pretty clear that it had no plans to introduce a touchscreen Mac. Craig Federighi (senior vice president of Software Engineering) told Wired in 2018: “We really feel that the ergonomics of using a Mac are that your hands are rested on a surface, and that lifting your arm up to poke a screen is a pretty fatiguing thing to do…”
A few years previously, in 2016 Phil Schiller (senior vice president Worldwide Marketing) told Wired’s Steven Levi: “We think of the whole platform… If we were to do Multi-Touch on the screen of the notebook, that wouldn’t be enough – then the desktop wouldn’t work that way.” And in the same year, Jony Ive (former Chief Design Officer), in typically minimalist style, commented to Cnet that the touch feature “wasn’t particularly useful”.
But, despite this stance, Apple has made a number of changes over the years that go some way to merge macOS and iPadOS and invite a future where Macs could utilise a touch interface.
With the arrival of iPadOS 13 and macOS Catalina in 2019, Apple introduced Sidecar, which allows an iPad to become a second screen for your Mac, while also bringing some touch-controls to the party. Along with being able to interface with the screen of your Mac mirrored on your iPad using your finger, you can also access Touch Bar controls on the iPad, plus some additional commands. Add an Apple Pencil and you can turn the iPad into a graphics pad for your Mac, with even more tactile control over macOS apps, such as Logic Pro X, which utilises the iPad and iPhone touch interface through the Logic Remote app that turns the mobile devices into control panels that can play and program various music creation tools such as Live Loops.
At WWDC 2020, Apple discussed how developers would be able to easily port iOS and iPadOS apps to the Mac thanks to Mac Catalyst’s tools for optimising the converted apps from the touch interface to the Mac interface. We now have the ability to run iPad and iPhone apps on Macs with Apple’s M-series chips.
Apple’s gone on to refine and improve this unification of the iPad and Mac to such an extent that with Universal Control (which arrived in January 2022 with macOS Monterey 12.3 and iPadOS 15.4) users can share the same keyboard and mouse between a compatible Mac and iPad while either mirroring their macOS screen or using iPadOS on said iPad.
The integration of the two interfaces is well underway and iPads and Macs have never been closer together in terms of power and app compatibility. The flipside of that is that now that we have the ability to run iOS/iPadOS apps on the Mac the lack of touch input on the Mac becomes even more of a frustrating experience.
Could it be that touch is finally at the stage where including it in a Mac is less of a fridge/toaster situation and more of “hey, that’s really useful!” one instead? It’s starting to look like it.
When Microsoft released Windows 8 in 2012, its primary focus on the touch-interface was something of a disaster. Many users complained of the phone-like experience on their massive desktop screens, and Tim Cook explained the perils of technology convergence by giving the aforementioned kitchen utility example.
While this may all have been true at the time, subsequent developments call this wisdom into question today.
First of all, Windows got a lot better. Microsoft learned quickly from the car crash of Windows 8, implementing design changes in version 8.1 and finally getting it right with Windows 10 and devices like the Surface Pro, which restored a primarily mouse and keyboard approach, but with the inclusion of touch when you need it.
And that’s the important factor. Touch can be an excellent augmentation to an interface, rather than replacing the existing one. The simple addition to being able to navigate websites by tapping on links rather than using a cursor has obvious benefits, aside from the fact that we are all so used to doing so on our iPhones and iPads.
Apple did actually attempt to implement a form of touch on MacBooks, but it would probably be fair to say it failed spectacularly. In 2016 Apple added the Touch Bar to the MacBook Pro. The Touch Bar is/was an OLED strip positioned above the keys that offered function keys relevant to the current app. Having been a feature of 13 and 15-inch MacBook Pro models it is now only available on the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro, where it’s days are probably numbered.
There are many problems with the Touch Bar concept. One being the way touch-typists have to slow down to use the feature, as contextually changing icons don’t allow for the building of muscle memory in the fingers. There’s also the factor that you can’t see the Touch Bar unless you look down from your screen, at which point you have to take your eyes off what you are doing. Not having to change your arm position, and the ease of scrubbing through video content are genuinely helpful, but the Touch Bar interrupts a user’s flow and can end up being completely ignored in favour of the traditional on-screen controls. It’s no surprise that the concept was a failure.
In many ways the Touch Bar demonstrates everything Apple had wrong with it’s view of touch on the Mac. As Macworld’s Leif Johnson puts it so well in Apple really doesn’t want us thinking about touchscreen MacBooks, “Apple seems to assume users would want to use nothing but touch support on their MacBooks, but when I see colleagues and visitors using touchscreen Windows laptops in meetings, they’re not using them for complicated tasks like clone-stamping textures in Photoshop. They’re usually not diving deep into menus, and they’re certainly not trying to recreate one of Monet’s haystacks. Instead, they’re usually standing over their laptops and quickly swiping to different parts of a page or opening files or links, thereby saving a few seconds over what using a mouse or the trackpad would have taken. It’s sure as heck a lot more convenient than the Touch Bar, which has been Apple’s only concession to touch-based interaction on MacBooks to date.”
As a way to approach touch on a Mac laptop the Touch Bar is incredibly flawed and really just shows Apple’s lack of understanding as to what users want from a touch interface. Neither the Touch Bar, Sidecar or Universal Control, solve the simple issue of wanting to quickly select links on a page or navigate seamlessly through a website like you can on most Windows 10 laptops and even the majority of Chromebooks. It’s like using a diamond-encrusted sledgehammer to tap in a nail.
This is all the more curious when you consider that Apple has positioned the Pro line as a replacement for your Mac with the mantra “Your next computer is not a computer.”
Certainly, for some people this is an attractive proposition, but with the laptop level of performance found in iPad Pros whose prices rival those of entry level Macs, and yet lack the screen sizes to compete with iMacs, it’s a niche option rather than the more obvious one.
Putting a touchscreen in a Mac and offering the ability to use it when you need it, seems a far better option that trying to squeeze a Mac-like experience into iPadOS. For a company that prides itself on elegant solutions to problems, not having a touchscreen option on the Mac now seems more of an ideological sticking point rather than one that best serves its users.
MacBook Touchscreen: Specs and features
According to Gurnam’s report from January 2023 (above) the MacBook touchscreen will use OLED technology. Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has claimed that Apple’s first MacBooks with OLED displays could arrive in 2024, a year before the touch screen implementation.
Gurman’s report also states that macOS is “likely” to be used on these first touchscreen Macs and that the company is not working on combining macOS and iPadOS.
In the meantime it’s Macs or iPads, so check out our best Mac or best iPad guide for details of which one to buy.