The MacBook Pro’s Touchy Feely Thing
I check out Apple’s faster, thinner, louder notebook with the Multi-Touch strip on the keyboard. And Phil Schiller helps me decode it.
I didn’t ask Apple for a Touch Bar. No one did. Yet here it is, perched on top of the keyboard of the new MacBook Pro, like a strand of Technicolor ribbon. Clearly, Apple ascribes to the school of innovation that says great products come only when you produce stuff that your users never imagined. But why a Touch Bar, and is it really valuable?
For months now, I have been staring at a tiny whirling beach ball on my screen, thinking, “When is Apple coming out with the next generation notebook— thinner, lighter, more powerful? — so I can replace this?” Hundreds of thousands of others share my plight: The current generation of the MacBook Pro, known as the Retina model, appeared in 2012.
Apple hopes to answer our prayers with this generation. It is thinner than the MacBook Air, weighs virtually the same (for the 13" models, 3.02 pounds compared to the Air’s 2.96), and is much faster. More powerful speakers than the previous Pro make it a svelte boombox. The screen pops with an intense gamut of color.
It’s also more expensive than the Retina Pros: $1,500 for a stripped down version without the Touch Bar, $1,700 for the flagship 13" screen Touch Bar model, and configurations for the 15" version that rise well north of $2,500. For many current users, the priciness might flip that now to later. And with its all-in approach to the newfangled, speedier Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) connectors — which won’t work with current peripherals unless you purchase the proper “dongles” — the new MacBook Pro embraces the future so lustily that you might experience coitus interruptus with the present.
But really, this otherwise evolutionary computer will be defined by the Touch Bar. We all knew that the new version of the MacBook Pro was going to be more powerful and easier to carry around. It’s no surprise that it looks great. Space grey is definitely the new black, or at least the new aluminum. (One pleasant bonus — the Apple logo on the lid no longer lights up, sparing you from serving as a glowing advertisement for the Cupertino computer maker.) What we did not know, at least until the inevitable leaks began spouting, was that there would be an interactive display strip where function keys once lived. Now we have to figure out if we like it.
I’ve been bellying up to the Touch Bar for over a week now, but before I render a verdict, I’d like to situate this feature in the Apple universe. As I wrote a few days after launch, the coincidental introduction of the new MacBook Pro a day after the Microsoft unveiled its Surface Studio — a behemoth with a 28-inch touch screen — led a lot of commentators to charge that the historically unimaginative plodders from Redmond had out-innovated the flashy cool kids in Cupertino. How can Apple’s quarter-inch strip of OLED on a keyboard compare to a Microsoft’s whole frigging table’s- worth of touch goodness?
Certainly some Apple fans are restless. Based on the cost of the MacBook Pro and the need to buy a basket of deplorable dongles to mediate between devices and Thunderbolt 3, they are taking to social media to express doubts and—in some cases—apostasy.
Fortunately, I do not have to make guesses at what’s going on in Apple’s mind. Perhaps motivated by the grumbling in rainbow-fruit land, Apple’s SVP of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller came to the phone last week to decode the company’s motivations, and stridently counter the cavils of the doubters.
To understand the Touch Bar, it’s helpful to revisit a conversation I had with Schiller a year ago, upon the introduction of a new iteration of the iMac. Replying to my query as to why Apple did not, as some expected, give the iMac a touch screen, Schiller laid out to me what would be known as the Grand Unified Theory of Apple Hardware. The philosophy is best understood, he told me, by visualizing the various devices Apple sells on a horizontal plane, like the famous illustration of Darwinian human evolution. Only in this case, the series doesn’t represent a progression, but rather a taxonomy of ideal forms, a Cupertino World Order in which the interface for each is perfectly suited for the function and form of each device.
“Watch, iPhone, iPad, Macbook, iMac,” he said. “They really are all computers. Each one is offering customers something unique and each one is made with a simple form that perhaps is eternal. People in the industry may question them — we don’t, for some very simple reasons.”
Seen in that context, making the Macintosh screen—even just on the laptop—touch-centric is a crime against nature, as it violates the functionality intrinsic to the form of a notebook or desktop computer, at least as Apple sees it. Indeed, last week, Schiller was even more emphatic when that subject came up.
“We think of the whole platform,” he says. “If we were to do Multi-Touch on the screen of the notebook, that wouldn’t be enough — then the desktop wouldn’t work that way.” And touch on the desktop, he says, would be a disaster. “Can you imagine a 27-inch iMac where you have to reach over the air to try to touch and do things? That becomes absurd.” He also explains that such a move would mean totally redesigning the menu bar for fingers, in a way that would ruin the experience for those using pointer devices like the touch or mouse. “You can’t optimize for both,” he says. “It’s the lowest common denominator thinking.”
Apple came to this conclusion by testing if touch screens made sense on the Mac. “Our instincts were that it didn't, but, what the heck, we could be wrong—so our teams worked on that for a number of times over the years,” says Schiller. “We’ve absolutely come away with the belief that it isn't the right thing to do. Our instincts were correct.”
On the other hand, he notes, Multi-Touch has already found it way onto the Mac platform, as gestures used on the iPhone — pinch, twirl, swipe — have migrated to the touch pad. The Touch Bar is an extension of that movement of making the Macintosh “a part-time touch experience.”
A big fat target for that transformation was the function key row, which was just sitting there largely unused. (Though the appearance of the Touch Bar has revealed a suddenly vocal population, mainly of programmers, passionately devoted to the escape key.). For a number of years, Schiller says, engineers at Apple have been figuring out how to colonize that function row territory with touch technology. It was a way to make Mac a touch experience without toppling the Grand Unified Theory. “This notebook design has been with us for 25 years and that fills a need for many people,” he says. “Having an interactive place where your hands are down on the keyboard is celebrating what makes a notebook a great notebook.”
When I suggested that this might be only the latest in a number of mobile innovations moving to the Mac, in an overall annexation of the Macintosh platform, Schiller pushed back, hard. “Its implementation is pure Mac,” he said. “The thought and vision from the very beginning was not at all, ‘How do we put iOS in the Mac?’ It was entirely, ‘How to you use the [iOS] technology to make a better Mac experience?’”
While I had Schiller, I asked him what Apple made of the furor over the MacBook Pro’s switch to the new Thunderbolt USB-C connectors, without including even one retro port so that people could use their current devices without using a dongle. Schiller sees this as a non-issue. Apple is building this device for the future, he says, and in five years the nascent USB-C technology will be in its prime.
Furthermore, with its speed and versatility (a big advantage is that you can use any of these ports for video, charging, and pretty much anything you’d ever do by connecting with a computer), USB-C is right for now. As far as dongles, he claims that most people won’t need them. For the small number of people that do, ones are available. (Apple, obviously sensitive to the issue, recently cut dongle prices on its store.) “We’re absolutely more sure than ever that we’ve done the right thing.”
And how about the charge that Apple has lost its innovative edge?
Schiller disputes that, too. “We work hard on these things, and they are the best,” he says. “We care about the feedback but we know that the fundamental difference on where their opinions are coming is between those who had a chance to use it and those who haven’t. There are people who want us to innovate faster and when we do there’s people who say, ‘Whoa, whoa, you’re going too fast.’ That’s just a balance in the world.”
In the case of the MacBook Pro specifically, Schiller thinks that pushback is natural, particularly before people have had a chance to try it.
“There’s always something for a critic to beat up on anybody’s notebook, because you have to make choices,” he says. “I know our team made very smart choices and this is the best notebook that can be made with the greatest technology.”
So what is it like to use the Touch Bar? First of all, it looks great: a strip of arcade-bright fettuccine. The high resolution, especially when it displays color, is a delightful contrast to the doggedly steampunk preserve of a physical keyboard.
From the get-go, the Touch Bar begins earning its keep by the inclusion of a fingerprint sensor on its right edge that allows Touch ID. (It’s also the power button.) Unlike the case with the iPhone sensor, where you essentially have to train multiple fingers (because you grip a phone in a lot of different angles), a laptop only needs a single finger — obviously, the index finger — to unlock the screen or make an Apple Pay purchase. For us sloppy typists who commonly have to peck out our passwords multiple times in a row, dozens of times a day, this alone might be worth the cost of the Touch Bar.
The Touch Bar can be an alternative to remembering a keyboard shortcut to open an app, or a much easier way of performing intuitive tasks such as scrolling through photos or fast-forwarding a QuickTime video. It’s at its best when choosing emojis, which does away with the awkward task of pulling up the choices on screen by letting you invoke a chorus line of cartoony icons. If you don’t see the one you like, you call in the next troupe by poking the proper category.
Perhaps the most powerful function of the keyboard is a feature originally introduced on the iPhone to make up for the difficulty of typing on its tiny screen: one-touch suggestions of the word Apple guesses you’d like to type next.
At first I had difficulty using that shortcut: Slipping a finger toward what used to be a function key row to choose a word screwed up my orientation to the standard part of the keyboard, and interrupted my typing flow. Ultimately, I got a little better at it. But then, I found that if I got into a mode of looking at the next word Apple suggested, I wound up making choices determined by the company’s machine learning algorithms as opposed to the supposedly clever original language I am paid to craft. (For instance, in the above paragraph, the word “powerful” popped up when I was mentally searching for the right adjective. Done!)
For the immediate future, there will be only a limited number of applications that fully use the Touch Bar (Apple’s own, of course, and some key ones including Microsoft Office and Photoshop). Developers are free to use Apple’s API’s to make their products Touch Bar friendly (if they adhere to Apple’s rules the text suggestions should work already), but how many do that will depend on the size of the MacBook Pro’s user base. Another key variable is whether web services will be able make use of the bar. Schiller says only, “There is opportunity for that.” As for now, the Touch Bar pushes you to use Apple’s own browser, Safari. Writing this review now on the Medium online platform, I get word suggestions when using Safari, but not on Chrome.
Overall, the experience made me wonder whether the Touch Bar is a step toward Apple’s rejection of a physical keyboard. After all, the default Touch Bar configuration has an icon to invoke Siri, and you can add a button to instantly trigger voice dictation. Will we ever see a notebook where Apple shows the “courage” (to use Schiller’s term when the iPhone 7 ditched the headphone jack) get rid of those physical keys, which are, after all, are greasy relics of the industrial age?
“It’s certainly not on the horizon right now,” Schiller says. “We do want to add those experiences that you are talking about — talking to talk to Siri, voice dictation, suggestions. Although for us right now, there’s no reason to make that trade off. Instead, we focused on not removing the keyboard but making a better keyboard.” Got that?
There are other things to say about the MacBook Pro —for instance, it’s nice that the speakers are more muscular. And, despite Schiller’s claim that only a minority of users should care, it will be a constant annoyance that those high-speed USB-C ports need those unlovely dongles to connect with your current printers, flash drives, SD-cards, Ethernet, displays, and yes, even the iPhone introduced last month.
But you know what? It doesn’t really make much of a difference. Reports are that people are snapping it up, with online sales the highest ever for a notebook.
I know I will, even if it’s a couple hundred dollars more than my ideal price. And I will indeed choose a Macbook Pro with the Touch Bar, if only for the fingerprint sensor. I am still not totally convinced that this innovation — and yes, I will call it that — is really transformative, and not just a cool way to save a few seconds here and there. If developers don’t take the trouble to integrate it with their applications, or if Apple doesn’t figure out how to get it to work with web services, there’s always the danger that Touch Bar will be remembered not as a breakthrough but as a relic, a medium-difficult item in a future game of Tech Jeopardy.
But, hell, I’m sick of watching the spinning ball on my six-year-old MacBook Air. I’ve already bought my first dongle.