Apple’s fear of touchscreens on notebooks

So…I wrote this blog post for another blog a while back, and that blog has since gone neglected.  I don’t want to lose it, so I’m posting it here.  Enjoy!

 

As far back as 2008, I can remember wanting a Mac laptop with a multitouch display.  After playing with the original iPhone, I knew multitouch technology was finally good enough to put into a real computer, unlike those old, awful resistive touchscreens that had been in PC tablets for years.

iPad vs. RockI, as well as many others, was hoping the iPad would be that magic device that brought touch to OS X, but as we all know, the iPad ended up essentially being a larger iPod Touch and ran iOS.  In another case of “what techies want isn’t always what the market wants,” despite running iOS, the iPad was – and still is – a hit.  I was pretty down about the decision to run iOS, but I bought one anyway, and my parents ended up using it on weekend visits more than I did in general.

It’s easy to see why Apple would push iOS for their tablet rather than OS X.  iOS is built from the ground up for touch, and the iPad is indeed a touch-first device.  You don’t want to fumble with a dense UI designed for mouse and keyboard on a device that will rarely, if ever, have a mouse and keyboard connected to it.  And that’s not to mention that iOS is a way more profitable ecosystem for Apple.

But what about the MacBook line?  With touchscreens coming on more and more PC laptops, it feels like it won’t be long before it’s a standard feature, and having a Surface Pro 3, I can see why.  Touch is natural, and touch is fast.  On a desktop, sure, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense, considering how far away most desktop screens are from the user, but on a laptop, where the screen is literally inches from the keyboard…come on, that’s a no-brainer.

My argument for touch on MacBooks – and laptops in generally – is pretty simple.  Even in an OS that isn’t designed for touch, there are things that are faster and easier, or just more natural to do with touch, even over trackpads with touch gestures.  I generally don’t have issues using “desktop” Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 on my Surface in the first place, even though it was designed for mouse and keyboard, but that’s not the argument I’m making.  For example, to open a file, the workflow is as follows:  place your finger on the trackpad, locate the cursor, drag your finger to the icon, double click.  With a touchscreen, the workflow is: place finger over icon, double tap.

The argument here is that including a touchscreen doesn’t mean you have to use touch 100% of the time, or even 50% of the time, or even 30%.  Just being there when you want to use it for things that are faster, easier, or more natural with touch is the benefit; you don’t have to try to work touch into everything you do.

Touching a picture on a SurfaceSure, you can browse photos with your trackpad, and even use gestures to zoom or pan, but touching photos just feels so much better.  In fact, I’d say that directly interacting with photos is more natural and revives something in the digital experience that was lost in the transition from store-developed, printed photos to pixels on a screen.

Web browsing, for another example, is something that is almost always better with touch, but great to be supplemented by a trackpad and keyboard.  It’s easier and a more immersive experience to reach out and touch a link to open it rather than: touch trackpad, move cursor, click link – but it’s also easier to select text for copying with a trackpad in some cases.

No doubt, Microsoft has realized this, and that’s why the Surface line exists.  However, something like the Surface is not at all Apple-like.  Tim Cook has made it clear that he disapproves of hybrid devices like the Surface (though saying one thing has never prevented Apple from doing the opposite thing a year later), but more importantly, simply “activating” touch on OS X is not Apple’s style.  It’s more Microsoftian to give users what they want where they want it, and it’s more Appleish to guide users to what Apple thinks is best for them (which in this case, is iOS, if you’re in the market for a touchscreen device).  Neither of these is necessarily a better approach, but it does sort of preclude Apple from putting touch into their notebook line.

My verdict:  Apple isn’t going to change OS X, and thus will never put touch into any Mac running OS X, because in their minds, they already have an OS for touch.  If you’re waiting for a touchscreen Mac running a desktop-class OS, you might be waiting forever.  However, that doesn’t mean you’ll never get a touchscreen Mac notebook.  I have very little doubt in my mind that Apple is prototyping ARM MacBooks running iOS in their labs, but who knows if something like that would ever hit the market.  That’s certainly not something I’m interested in, but like I said earlier, what techies want isn’t always what the market wants.