A Touch OS is About More than Just Bigger Touch Targets

Posted by Matt Birchler
β€” 4 min read

David Sparks on a recent trip the Microsoft Store to try out the Surface Studio:

In more traditional apps, like Microsoft Word, the touch interface was less useful and more wonky. Word is way more touch-friendly on iPad than the Surface Studio. Those two teams at Microsoft should have lunch together once in awhile, Microsoft is clearly invested in making touch work in Windows and this is a big step but they still have a ways to go.

This is the sort of thing that I come back to all the time when talking to people about macOS/Windows vs iOS and Android. People will tell you that adding touch to the Mac is something Apple is foolishly neglecting, and that they honestly don't have to change that much of the system software to make is a good feature. They suggest Apple could just make the touch targets a little bigger, or even just leave everything the same because any touch is better than no touch at all.

I find these arguments fascinating coming from people who otherwise praise Apple for their tasteful, thoughtful implementation of features in all other parts of their hardware products. We praise Apple for not following the trends in smartphones that don't actually add to the overall experience, but we are critical of them for not doing this on the Mac.

The idea that touch is just a new feature you can add to any platform is foolish. iOS and Android are taking over the world not because they are mobile (although that helps), but because they were built from the ground up to be operated with touch input. Apple nerds got excited when Steve Jobs said on stage that the original iPhone was going to run OS X. People lost their minds, because this implied that they could run Mac software on the phone. Amazing!

But that's not what Apple did, and we're all better off for that decision. iOS was built on the same core as OS X, but zero bits of the UI were pulled from the desktop operating system. iOS gave Apple the opportunity to rethink everything from the top level UI to the nitty gritty details of networking and file management that had stayed largely the same for decades on the desktop. They created new design paradigms built on a system that would be interacted with entirely with your fingers. This was 100% the right move to make and it paid off amazingly for the company.

We had the same conversation again in 2010 when Apple unveiled the iPad, the company's first tablet. That 10 inch screen seemed built to run OS X, and critics of it said the fact that it was running iOS meant it was basically just a big iPod Touch. At the time the critics weren't technically that wrong, as the iPad actually shipped with iPhone OS 3.2, and many apps were not that different from their iPhone/iPod Touch versions. But in 2016 iPad software has grown in a big way and you're not going to see many people deride the iPad Pro for being just a big iPod.

I wrote a couple weeks ago that I thought the PC as a platform was complete. As David Sparks saw by using the Surface Studio, adding touch to a desktop operating system does not make it better by default. It's telling that Microsoft Word is a better touch experience on the iPad, a platform that was once derided for not being a platform for doing work at all, than it is on Windows 10 on Microsoft's best desktop computer.

Again, my point is not that PCs are bad or that they have no future. My position is simply that Windows and macOS-based PCs are built do operate one way, while iOS and Android-based devices are built for a totally different interaction. Microsoft has tried their best to make touch relevant on Windows 10 because they don't have a mobile operating system with any sort of future, so they have to take what they have and retrofit it for the future. Apple is in a totally different boat. They have a wildly successful mobile OS in iOS, and it makes no sense for them to do the work to create a version of macOS that is optimized for touch input when they already have that in iOS on the iPad. Their time would be much better used in adding functionality to the iOS for the iPad. And from all we can tell from outside Apple, that appears to be exactly what they are doing.

On an anecdotal note, my wife has been a lifetime Windows user and has been using an Acer laptop for the past 4 years that has a touch screen. That computer was getting very, very long in the tooth, so it was time to upgrade to a new laptop and she decided she wanted to get a Mac. She'd used my computer many times over our time together so she was familiar with the software and was not concerned about switching platforms, as macOS was far more pleasant to her than Windows 10.

He big concern with switching was that no Macs came with touch screens. She was looking at the MacBook and wasn't concerned with the specs or the single USB-C port, it was just the non-touch screen that worried her. She didn't use it for much on Windows besides scrolling web pages sometimes and randomly tapping on things that sh could have just as easily clicked.

She ended up getting the MacBook and is completely in love with it. The touch screen thing was a tiny adjustment, but after the first couple of days she has never brought it up again as a concern. She likes the better touch pad and the vastly superior fluidity of actions such as moving windows and scrolling web pages, things that inexplicably still kind of suck on Windows.