Touchscreen Macs would be fine, with two big provisos [Comment]


Touchscreen Macs are back in the news – though it’s unclear whether there’s actually much reason for this. The Bloomberg report didn’t say that Apple actually plans to make any, only that engineers are ‘actively engaged‘ in the project.

I mean, that much has always been true. Apple has long made touchscreen Mac prototypes, and put them through usability testing. So are we talking a dozen engineers, as has probably always been the case? Or hundreds of ’em, which would indeed be evidence that Apple has serious plans? The report doesn’t say …

Apple working on touchscreen Macs isn’t new

We know from remarks by Steve Jobs that Apple’s work on touchscreen Macs dates back to at least 2007 or 2008.

Steve said at a 2010 MacBook Pro event that Apple “thought about this years ago” and had done “tons of user testing.” Years plural takes us back to 2008 as a minimum, and possibly very much earlier.

The results, he said, showed that it was a terrible idea.

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.

It doesn’t work. It’s ergonomically terrible. Touch surfaces want to be horizontal.

Now, some things have changed since then. Most notably, the iPad has grown up. What started as a purely consumer device, used only in tablet mode, has since transformed into a device which Apple has described as a computer.

That’s partly because its performance now matches that of laptops, but also because the Magic Keyboard with trackpad effectively turns it into a laptop. With the iPad attached, the form factor is essentially identical to that of a laptop.

Apple already sells a touchscreen computer.

Is Steve still right?

I have both a MacBook Pro and an iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard. Which device I use when is largely dictated by the fact that I strongly prefer macOS over iPadOS: My default choice is always my Mac.

But, there are times when the iPad is more convenient – especially when traveling. Given that I have the 16-inch MacBook Pro (because I like large screens), my iPad is more compact, so easier to use on an airline or train tray table. It fits more easily into a bag. The built-in mobile data is more convenient.

When I’m using my iPad as a Mac substitute, I mostly use the trackpad, but occasionally use the touchscreen instead. It can be a little better for large-scale scrolling, for example when I’m wanting to scroll to the bottom of a long article. And I still find it’s easier to invoke or adjust Split View directly on the screen (though that’s mostly because multitasking on an iPad is still a UI disaster).

I know some other (dare I say, younger) iPad users see touch as the primary interface, even with the Magic keyboard. I’m not religious about it: If someone finds that better suits them, I’m not about to try to persuade them otherwise.

I also agree with my colleague Filipe Espósito that there’s an obvious niche role for a Mac version of Microsoft’s Surface Studio. I’m sure there are designers and artists who would kill for that. Frankly, I’m amazed that Microsoft got to that one before Apple did.

But I would raise two big provisos …

First, I don’t want to pay for a touchscreen Mac

High-quality touchscreens aren’t cheap, especially in larger devices like laptops and desktops.

If Apple were to add touchscreen functionality to all Macs, or to all Macs in a particular lineup (MacBook Pros, for example), that would significantly increase the price. Exactly the same was true, of course, of the infamous Touch Bar.

So I’m not against touchscreen Macs as optional models. Anyone who wants one can pay the premium to buy one. But I am very much against adding touchscreen functionality by default. I don’t want to be forced to pay a premium for something I’d hardly ever use.

Second, I don’t want macOS to be compromised

Even more importantly, I don’t want to see the kind of compromises that would be needed to make a Mac fully controllable by a touchscreen.

Touch targets would have to be huge, the way they are on an iPad. All the finesse of macOS would be lost, and the impact on both aesthetics and usability would be horrendous.

So sure, if people want to do some things on a Mac touchscreen, let ’em. But don’t, whatever you do, Apple, turn macOS into iPadOS. Leave us with our pleasingly compact menus; the option of an almost equally compact dock; our ability to position and size windows with pixel-level precision; and so on. Not the inflexible, space-wasting UI that is iPadOS.

Touchscreen Macs would be fine, with two big provisos [Comment]

So sure, offer one or more models to make happy those who want a touchscreen Mac. But don’t fit them as standard, and for the love of all that is holy, keep the iPadOS UI team far, far away from my Mac!

Image: Patrick Rambles

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