Apple announced on Thursday that many of their new MacBook Pros will ship with a “Touch Bar,” a narrow, high resolution touch screen in place of the Mac keyboard’s traditional Function Key row.
Many people immediately wondered whether we can expect Apple to release an external keyboard with the Touch Bar. This would bring the technology to the much wider audience of Mac users who are not ready to update to the latest MacBooks, or who prefer desktop Macs, or who prefer the flexibility of using their MacBook in a desktop-style configuration.
The question was discussed on the latest Accidental Tech Podcast, in which, if memory serves, John Siracusa and Marco Arment argued different angles of the “no” argument, citing the hardware cost, the extent to which a Touch Bar keyboard would complicate the accessories lineup, and perhaps most significantly, that Tim Cook does not care enough about the Mac to prioritize pushing any such technology.
Casey Liss watched football. Zing! Actually, Casey pushed back against the cynicism, suggesting that Apple’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the Mac does not reflect a lack of commitment to improving it. I, on the other hand, take exception with the very suggestion that Apple lacks enthusiasm or is not investing heavily in the Mac. Or, at least in this feature.
I think Apple intends to push the Touch Bar as as widely as it possibly can. The current MacBook Pro lineup is the most practical computer to debut the feature, but as it becomes possible to bundle it with external keyboards, and on notebook computers at every price point, they will do so.
Why am I so assured of Apple’s big plans for the Touch Bar? Because while many people assert that Apple is not investing seriously in the Mac, the Touch Bar’s hardware and software support appear to have been a major priority for the company in the year or two leading up to its release.
A massive amount of design work must have gone into the Touch Bar’s physical hardware, structuring the information it represents, and deciding how users will most usefully interact with it. I suspect that the Touch Bar merited an amount of design effort perhaps less than, but not completely incomparable to a standalone product like the Watch.
Thanks to the Touch Bar simulator in Xcode 8.1, we can also already take stock of the sheer amount of engineering effort, across many disparate groups in the company, that went into supporting the Touch Bar from a wide range of different apps and modes in macOS. Leave the simulator running while you go about your work, and prepare to be repeatedly surprised by the variety of novel use cases that have already been identified and implemented.
I find it impossible to believe that Apple would go to all this work, both on the Touch Bar itself, and across the entire range of its own apps and OS features, unless it had a grand vision for the Touch Bar that extends way beyond the internal keyboard of its premium notebook computers.
Instead, I think Apple sees the Touch Bar as a long-term, distinguishing aspect of using a Mac. Users will always be able to get by without one, just as they do for example when a multi-touch trackpad is not available. But macOS, and nearly every app that users run on it will work better with a Touch Bar. One day we’ll expect to always have access to one, and will feel that something is missing if we don’t.
It’s easy to see why Apple couldn’t come charging out of the gate with this vision fully realized. The Touch Bar hardware is no doubt expensive, and there are probably practical considerations with respect to the security of Touch ID, bandwidth between the device and the Mac, and managing its power needs in a user-friendly manner.
I say give Apple time. They’ve made a huge investment in Touch Bar, and all indications are they are prepared to continue prioritizing support for it down the road. We’re only on the brink of entering the early adopter phase, but in years to come I do think the Touch Bar will be everywhere.