It’s Time for Apple to Give the Mac a Touch Screen

Illustration of an Apple Pencil being used on a MacBook Pro
Apple; Illustration Michael Crider

It’s 2020, and you still can’t touch the screen on your Mac. Weird, right? It’s one of those things you kind of assumed was fixed years ago, like Bluetooth pairing or the ozone layer. But here we are: despite Apple pioneering modern touchscreens and most new laptops coming with them by default, Macs are still defiant in their absence.

Under the Skin

Things are about to change, though. Later this year Apple will begin transitioning the Mac computer lineup to its own internally developed ARM-based hardware—the same kind of thing that powers the iPhone and iPad. Apple announced this at its WWDC event earlier this week, alongside Big Sur, a new version of macOS that borrows tons of visual design elements from the iPad.

And, it’s more than a skin-deep change: every Mac running on Apple silicon will be able to run iOS and iPadOS apps naively. Just open the App Store, download them, and they’re ready to go. This is huge, of course. Plugging a mobile store with literally millions of premade applications into your platform, which has historically fallen behind the competition in terms of program selection, is a win-win. Google tried—indeed, is still trying—to do the same thing, with Android apps running on Chromebooks. Microsoft yearned for a unified software platform, even if it failed to create one. It makes perfect sense.

macOS Big Sur screenshot

So, get ready to run your favorite iPhone and iPad apps on your Mac. But don’t get ready to touch them. The announcement gave no indication that macOS would gain touchscreen support (beyond the nominal utility of the Touch Bar on the MacBook). The presenter went as far as to operate the demo apps, Monument Valley 2, Fender Play, and Calm, with a Magic Trackpad. It was exactly as awkward as “using a mouse to operate touch-based applications” sounds.

During the Big Sur presentation, iOS apps were used with a keyboard and trackpad.

Barring some major surprise between now and the end of the year, it looks like Apple’s long-standing aversion to touch-enabled desktop operating systems will continue unabated.

The Right to Gorilla Arms

Why? It boggles the mind. It even Jengas and Battleships the mind. It’s not as if Apple doesn’t see the value of touch as a paradigm: its entire mobile strategy is founded on it, and MacBooks are still considered the gold standard when it comes to touchpad accuracy and gestures. Current MacBook Pros dipping their toes into touschscreens with a unique Touch Bar across the top of the keyboard show that Apple is neither completely repelled nor completely sold, on touchscreens for full-power operating systems.

Whenever the subject of touchscreens on Macs is broached, Steve Jobs’ declaration that “touchscreen laptops don’t work” is raised. “We thought about this years ago. We’ve done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn’t work,” Jobs said in a 2010 Apple keynote. “Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical! It gives great demo, but after a short time you start to fatigue … your arm wants to fall off. It doesn’t work. It’s ergonomically terrible.” Jobs gave the horizontal trackpads and Magic Mouse as the Mac’s gateway to multitouch functionality.

A series of 2000s patent applications give credence to his claim that Apple has done its homework. But 10 years of slow, awkward, and ultimately successful progress in Windows and pretty much every other operating system have proven Jobs wrong. People really like touchscreens on laptops, and even those who don’t habitually use them (like me!) don’t see them as a detriment.

Part of that is because we’re becoming more and more touch-focused as users, as our phones become our primary gateway to the digital world. (Thanks, Apple!) And, part of it is because the form factors beyond phones and tablets are bending to that pressure. The convertible fold-back touchscreen laptop is now at least as popular as a conventional clamshell, and “true” tablets with add-on keyboards like the Surface Pro and Lenovo Duet are quickly gaining ground across Windows and ChromeOS. Even all-in-one desktops, cousins of the iMac once removed, are embracing touch interfaces more than ever before.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7
The Surface series shook up the laptop market and proved that touchscreens are here to stay. Microsoft

People want to touch their screens, even on full-powered machines. Software and hardware are letting them do so—everywhere except on Macs.

Apple Is Arguing With Itself

But don’t take my word for it. Even Apple says that touchscreens can do serious work: that’s the entire point of the iPad Pro line, the jumbo-screened high-priced iPad that’s touted as a replacement for a conventional laptop. “Your next computer is not a computer. It’s a magical piece of glass,” Apple proudly declares, today, on the iPad Pro.

iPad Pro advertisement

From its super-powered ARM hardware to its multitasking interface to its Surface-style keyboard-and-touchpad upgrade, the iPad Pro now has everything that a next-generation ARM-based MacBook will—plus a touchscreen. “What’s a computer?” asks the girl in its introductory ad, illustrating a world where children don’t even recognize a computing device without a touchscreen. How telling.

So, which is it? Can touch-based interfaces do everything a traditional laptop can, or are the realms of “real” work reserved for only a keyboard and mouse? Apple’s interface designers seem a little confused, because every inch of macOS Big Sur has been given an iPad Pro-style visual makeover, by their own admission. Dripping with the design language of the iPad, macOS itself now begs users to reach out and touch it … and then tells them not to. It’s a compulsion that competitors are more than happy to indulge.

Based on the preview of Big Sur delivered at WWDC, Apple isn’t going to transition macOS to touch input, or even accommodate those who want to try it, any time soon. The interface elements are still far too small and sleek to tap reliably with a finger, even on the famous dock. The dream is deferred, at least for now.

It’s Time to Think Different

But if you put iOS and iPadOS apps on the Mac, people are going to want to touch those screens more than ever. Including touchscreen functionality would be a win for users for those apps alone. And plenty of those apps, including most touchscreen games, will be severely reduced in functionality if they’re forced into an awkward keyboard-mouse-touchpad transition.

Apple’s been resisting touchscreen laptops for 10 years, and it’s time they stopped. But more than that, it’s time that they thought beyond the traditional laptop form factor. A Yoga-style convertible or a Surface-style tablet+keyboard might be following in others’ footsteps, but there’s no shame in that. And as a fan of both those form factors, I’d love to see what Apple’s designers could bring to the table if their stolid opposition to touchscreens on a full-power machine melted away.

Why stop at existing designs? With a unified code base and hardware-enabling iOS apps on Macs, there’s no great technical hurdle keeping iPhones and iPads from running the new ARM-coded versions of full-sized Mac apps. Would it work? Certainly! Would it work well? Probably not! But Apple needs to let its engineers and developers, and those of third parties, explore those possibilities and find new ways to do the same old things.

There’s hope that Apple is looking forward in terms of touchscreens, and it comes from a familiar crystal ball: the U.S. patent system. As recently as last year, Apple was filing patents for cross-device touchscreen interfaces, including a touch-sensitive laptop screen.

Apple patent for touchscreen laptop.

Note the keyboard layout and the distinctive horizontal rectangle for the Touch Bar above—that’s a design patent for MacBook with a touchscreen, alright. Is this a case of Apple finally looking forward, or merely a patent filing covering all possible bases? Fingers crossed for the former.

After a decade of very specific stagnation in Apple’s laptop and desktop design, Apple’s hardware transformation needs to lead it to give its software the same treatment. Let your users reach out and touch you, macOS. You’ll be a better operating system for it.

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