A Hill to Die On

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 5 min read

For 13 years straight, people asked for iOS to add home screen widgets. For 13 years you heard the same refrain from Apple fans: they suck on Android, Apple doesn’t want that crop on their phones.

Then in iOS’s 14th revision, Apple added widgets.

And you know what? They’re fucking awesome.

In 2010 Apple shipped the first iPad and on 2012 Microsoft shipped the Surface. Immediately, people were asking for the iPad to get some of the better Surface features, again met by, “Apple made a tablet, not a laptop.”

Today I’m writing this article on an iPad with a physical keyboard and trackpad. It’s inarguable that the iPad has moved more towards the Surface than the Surface has moved towards the original iPad.

And yeah, it’s fucking awesome.

Apple Does it Better

Now of course while Apple “copied” these things from other platforms, they did them in their own ways. I’ve owned Android phones over the years, and I don’t like widgets on Android, but I like them on iOS. I like the Surface keyboard setup, but it’s not perfect, while the Magic Keyboard is my favorite laptop keyboard/trackpad I’ve ever used.

Apple doesn’t just copy features, they generally do them better and with more focus on use cases rather than checking off boxes for feature comparisons.

As the examples above show (and we could go on for days with more examples), the fact that Apple has stood firm on not doing something now is absolutely no guarantee that they will never do it, nor that it would be a bad idea for them to do it.

Which brings us to today.

Touch? On a Mac? Not on my life!

Today the hill some seem to be willing to die on is that the Mac will never get a touch screen.

“It sucks on Windows, Apple wouldn’t do that. They’ve said no for 10 years, why do you expect them to change?”

Optionally, bounce back to the top of this post if you’re not sure where I’m going here. 😋

This year Apple added a mouse cursor to the iPad, something a few years ago would have been brushed off as “a Mac thing that didn’t belong on a touch-based OS.” Yet here we are. If you can find a single person who thinks the iPad is worse off for adding a cursor, I’d be very impressed. Apple didn’t just glom the Mac cursor onto the iPad and call it a day, they updated iPadOS in ways that made it work wonderfully.

Similarly, one would expect that when Apple brings touch to the Mac, they will give it the same respect and attention that they gave the iPad’s cursor.

So why do I think touch screen Macs are coming? Frankly, I’m shocked we’re still debating “if” and not “when.”

The Future

First, there’s the general trend in the industry towards touch. Your phone has touch, your iPad has touch, most Windows and Chromebook laptops have touch, your car likely has touch, your Nintendo Switch has touch, your watch has touch, and kids have over and over shown to feel that screens without touch are somehow broken. At this point, “the Mac sin’t built for touch, so Apple won’t add it” reminds me a lot of someone scoffing at the GUI in the 80s and saying the command line simply wasn’t built for a mouse, and Microsoft will never change because “that’s not how Windows works”.

Second, let’s consider Apple instantly boosting the amount of software running on the Mac by bringing over all third party apps from the iOS App Store. A few apps didn’t make the jump, but this was an opt-out event, so millions of apps made the jump to the Mac this week. I’ve read and watched a bunch of reviews of these new computers, and not a single one has said that the experience of using these iOS apps is great. Everyone agrees it’s weird to interact with these apps with a mouse, which makes sense as these apps were not written for mouse and keyboard input, they were designed for touch. This is exactly the usability compromise that anti-touch folks suggest Apple would never do. It’s either a terrible mistake and there should be think-pieces out there demanding Apple remove iOS apps since they tarnish their own usability on the Mac, or we need to acknowledge that this is a short period where they will be awkward until a touch-enabled Mac makes them great.

And third, here’s Tim Cook at WWDC 2020:

When we look ahead, we envision some amazing new products, and transitioning to our own custom silicon is what will enable us to bring them to life.

Let’s consider what Mac portables look like in 10 years. A few things are obvious:

  1. These Macs run Apple Silicon chips.
  2. They’re very fast, putting our current crop of computers to shame.
  3. They’re thinner and lighter.

What else do you have? I know my answers, but given there are some out there who are morbidly opposed to Apple ever adding touch to macOS, so here’s your chance to think about what sorts of great new products Apple is envisioning for the future of the Mac.

I would suggest that touch is coming, that convertible devices that switch between tablet and clamshell modes easily, and that new input devices such as Apple Pencil (or a Mac-based equivalent), motion, and eye tracking may be in the pipeline. But all of those run counter to the anti-touch crowd.

I’m genuinely curious what the visionary products are that anti-touch folks see down the road for the Mac.

Not “If”, but “When”

I’m genuinely curious about that last bit above: what do these new, visionary Macs look like down the road if they don’t include touch? Outside of thinner and lighter devices, what will these lower power chips enable Apple to put into the market? Is the Mac really done at this point in terms of hardware innovation? It’s all just a few millimeters thinner every couple years from here on out?

I disregard this suggestion, and frankly see it as an uninspired look at what Apple is able to do as a company. There are tons of places the Mac can go, and the future seems as bright as ever for the platform, and suggesting that the Mac will only ever be run by mouse and keyboard, then you’re limiting the platform immensely.

I am not suggesting Apple glom on a touch screen to the Mac right now and call it a day. This inevitably is the argument people make on Twitter, but it’s a poor one because that’s explicitly not what I’m saying. I think throwing a touch screen on Macs today with no changes would make them marginally better in some ways, but the plan for adding touch is going to involve more software improvements as well.

Maybe I’m a head-in-the-clouds iPad lover or something, but the fact I can interact with my iPad with touch, stylus, Pencil, keyboard, or trackpad, all completely seamlessly is incredibly powerful, and I want Mac fans to get the same sort of flexibility. If you don’t think Apple can do this well, I’d politely suggest I’m not the one who has a poor understanding of Apple.