I’ve been baited into writing about touch screen Macs once more

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 7 min read

Today Ben Lovejoy posted Touchscreen Macs: The idea that will not die on 9to5Mac and as someone who has weighed in here more than a few times, I figured I’ll do it one more time and then let this topic rest for a while.

First, we bust out the classic Steve jobs quote about vertical touch screens being terrible.

It turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical. It gives great demo, but after a short period of time you start to fatigue, and after an extended period of time your arm wants to fall off.

It doesn’t work. It’s ergonomically terrible. Touch surfaces want to be horizontal.

It should be legally required for people who quote this line to also post a picture of how Apple advertises people using iPad Pros today. Here’s one from Apple’s website right now:

“A terrible user experience” if you take that Steve Jobs quote as gospel

People love the Magic Keyboard! They will pay ungodly sums of money to get this experience! I’m writing this post from an iPad Pro and magic Keyboard right now, even. I’m typing on the keyboard and scrolling with the touch screen because that feels more ergonomic to me right now.

He then quotes Apple VP Tom Boger who recently gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal where he commented on the difference between iPads and Macs:

He remained firm: iPads are for touch, Macs are not. “MacOS is for a very different paradigm of computing,” he said. He explained that many customers have both types of devices and think of the iPad as a way to “extend” work from a Mac. Apple’s Continuity easily allows you to work across devices, he said.

I’ll reference myself to remind everyone that Apple has long been very loyal to the product feature set they’re currently selling, even if they’re already working on the thing they say they don’t care that much about.

What bugs me is that this article cuts the WSJ quote off right before Boger declines to say Macs will never get touch support, which is the entire point of including this quote in the 9to5Mac article. Here’s the next 2 lines after the above quote:

I did ask Boger if Apple would ever change its mind on the touch-screen situation.

“Oh, I can’t say we never change our mind,” he said.

Look, I get that you need to stop blockquotes somewhere, but doing so right before the part that undermines the entire, “Apple just said they won’t do this,” black-and-white argument is dicy.

It’s also fair to point out that the “iPads are for touch, Macs are not” statement is a oversimplification on its face. iPads were always touch-centric, and they still are, but you can do everything on an iPad with a mouse and keyboard if you want; the system elegantly lets you switch between the two, and users can choose in every moment which option is best for them.

To his credit, Lovejoy does have some experience using touch hacked into a Mac that he’s using to inform his opinion:

While none of us have been inside Apple’s test labs to try any of the prototypes, I have used third-party modifications to add touchscreen functionality.

One of these was for an early Macintosh, and the other for the 13-inch MacBook Air. Both took the form of a monitor surround with infrared LEDs to detect the position and movement of a finger, and then a utility to have the Mac see that as a mouse movement. My arm did indeed want to drop off in both cases.

This is fair, and if you were forced to use a touch screen Mac on a vertical screen with no keyboard or mouse to help, then sure, I believe that would be a tiring experience as well. What I find frustrating about this idea is that it lacks imagination. I get the impression that people who hate the idea of touch on Macs can only imagine the current laptops with a digitizer in the screen detecting touch. It’s kind of ironic, but this is exactly the sort of thinking that Apple so rarely does. As we often say, Apple doesn’t add technology for the sake of technology, they add features users will enjoy.

So the question is really, what can a Mac look like once you can use it without a physical keyboard and mouse? And in the era of Apple silicon, what does a Mac look like once you can cram the fastest single-core performance you’ve ever seen in a 5.1mm thick chassis? When you think about these questions, suddenly it’s not obvious at all that touch-enabled Macs should be clamshell laptops and you start to see something that looks a lot more like the iPads we know today.

I summed this up in more details in a recent members-only post so I’ll share an extended quote from that which lays out what I’m hoping for one day:

My vision for a touch-enabled Mac is not to have a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro with a digitizer in the screen. That’s boring. What I’d want looks very much like an iPad.

Apple could sell an iPad-like tablet that ran macOS and was fully functional on its own, but most people would get an accessory or two (or more) to enhance it with what they needed. Get a Magic Keyboard if you want to be able to use it like a laptop. Get a Thunderbolt dock if you want to use it as a desktop most of the time. Get an Apple Pencil if you want to draw on it or if you want a little more precision when using the UI, especially on apps that don’t use macOS’s native UI components and don’t scale as well to smaller screens.

Apple likes to show how the iPad hardware is super convenient for pros who are in the field and want to edit photos or videos on the go, and that’s all well and good, but it has to be said that those pros are required to use limited versions of apps like Adobe Lightroom and Final Cut Pro in those situations. Wouldn’t it be great if they could use the full fat versions of the apps they rely on rather than whatever subset of features the developers had managed to fit into their iPadOS versions?

So yeah, a MacBook Air you can touch isn’t super compelling to me, but new hardware enabled by the new tech is very exciting, and is exactly in Apple’s wheelhouse.

Lovejoy does mention the iPad’s Magic Keyboard near the end:

But you don’t actually need to have had that experience to see how well (or not) a touchscreen Mac would work. If you’ve ever used an iPad with the Magic Keyboard, then you can already replicate the best possible case for a touchscreen Mac.

That’s because you have the keyboard and trackpad as primary input devices, but are also able to use the iPad’s touchscreen directly – with a touch-first UI meaning we don’t even have to get into the impact of the OS.

So … using the iPad as a pseudo-MacBook in this way, how much use do you make of the iPad touchscreen?

Lots! And not only do I use the touch screen a good deal when using an iPad in the Magic Keyboard, I can also take the iPad out of the keyboard and use it 100% with touch…or I can plug it into a monitor and use it 100% with a mouse and keyboard.

The piece ends like this:

My very strong suspicion is that it wouldn’t sell well enough for Apple to keep it in the line-up. But hey, maybe that’s the only way to make this idea finally die: Create one, see how many are willing to pay the premium, and – crucially – see how many of them would ever buy another one once they’ve actually used it.

I just went to Best Buy’s website and looked at the most popular Windows laptops that cost $700 or more. 11 of the top 15 selling laptops have touch screens. And to be clear, this was a list of traditional laptops, so no convertible 2-in-1 devices were in this list. Clearly, when given the choice, people are choosing computers with touch screens.

In fact, I would say that the entire premise of this article (that people won’t stop hoping for a touch screen Macs) is evidence that there is demand out there for the product. Apple fans often say, “Apple needs to do this new thing other people are doing,” and most of these things end up being fads so people stop asking. At this point I don’t think it’s controversial to say that computing devices with touch screens are a fad that’s going to fade away.

And anecdotally, my wife only had 2 real concerns with buying a MacBook Air over a Dell, and one of them was that the Mac didn’t have a touch screen.

I’m old enough to remember a time when people like we were hoping for cursor support on iPads and people emphatically told us we were wrong to hope for that because Apple would never do it. After all, iPads were for touch and Macs were for indirect manipulation, right? That wall came down 4 years ago and iPads got meaningfully more useful and accessible than before, and I think the same would happen if Apple made touch-enabled Macs.

Once again, I don’t think these Macs would look like today’s clamshell MacBooks, they would have a new form factor more similar to iPads.

Finally, let’s not forget that you can use a Mac with a keyboard, mouse, trackpad, Wacom tablet, voice control, touch bar, screen readers, and more. Mice and trackpads are surely the dominant way people interact with a Mac, but it’s far from the only way and somehow we all get by anyway.

I'm just adding a quick add here at the end that what I find frustrating about this conversation is that I find my hope of a touch-enabled Mac is additive to both the Apple ecosystem and the audience who might be drawn to Macs on the whole. I don't want anyone to be forced to use touch, I don't want people who are happy with their iPads to lose them, and I don't even want people who want more from iPadOS to stop getting more power. I'm arguing for people like me to get the product we want on top of this, and it's frustrating to get push back that my (our) needs are not valid or deserving of being filled.