As soon as Apple introduced the iPhone and its multi-touch gestures it was almost taken as a given that this technology would make its way over to the Mac.
Apple is famous for consistency across its product lines: Macs, iPhones, iPads, the Apple TV, and so on, all share design motifs and underlying technology that appears on one device will - more often than not - appear on others shortly after.
We’ve seen this with integrated batteries, unibody design, iSight cameras and so on. First it appears on one device, then it starts to appear on the rest.
So where is the Mac with a touchscreen display hiding? It’s a question worth asking given that Apple pretty much kick started the multi-touch interactive display with the iPhone, and then rolled it to the iPad, you’d assume that it’d make it to the Mac eventually. Or will it?
See: MacBook Reviews
Would Apple make a touchscreen laptop?
In some ways the MacBook (and other Macs) has already got multi-touch in the form of the large glass trackpad. This introduced many gestures from iOS to the world of Mac OS X.
While the trackpad is cool, swiping on the glass pad doesn’t truly have the same effect as interacting directly with the screen. It’s long been an area of distinction between the iPad and iPhone, but now that the iPad is firmly entrenched in our minds: is it time for the technology to become a little less exclusive? Isn’t it past time we got multi-touch on a machine that is used for more productive creative work?
Does a touchscreen Mac make sense?
Apple is keen to ensure that it’s products remain different (while sharing technology) and to that end the iPad was always introduced as a third-device. One that wouldn’t quite replace the iPhone, and wouldn’t quite replace the Mac, but would offer a new and better way to do “some things” (not everything: just “some things”).
That’s great but the iPad has had its time to carve a niche in the market, and it’s done so successfully. It’s the portable tablet device that enables you to kick back, view the web, and do key tasks like photos, email, and play music in an environment that’s not quite as intense as Mac OS X.
Would Apple make a touchscreen iMac?
The real question is would we benefit from a touchscreen Mac? What does touchscreen bring to the table that trackpads and mice do not. Given that Apple already has already implemented gestures in the trackpad the real answer is a lack of indirection. It is simply more natural feeling to touch an icon on a screen, then to use a separate device to move a pointer and click on it virtually. It’s faster and there’s less confusion.
It’s less precise than a mouse, but not necessarily less precise than a trackpad. In many ways it’s easier to navigate with fingers on screen than fingers on a trackpad.
Steve Jobs, Apple’s former CEO didn’t agree. In 2010 he told Business Insider that they “don’t work”. "We've done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn't work… 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.”
And Apple has long had this patent for a touchscreen iMac with a Flex Base that folds down the screen down. Referred to as an iMac touch in the patent, it at least shows that Apple is holding on to the idea.
Apple iOS vs Mac OS X touch
One key obstacle to a touchscreen Mac is that Mac OS X simply isn’t designed for multi-touch interaction. The icons are too small, the Finder is too fiddly and the menu structure is designed around the movement of a pointer. In fact: the whole operating system is built around the mouse or trackpad, so expecting it to work with a effectively with a touchscreen is unreasonable.
But Mac and iOS are coming together. Not just in terms of hardware but software. Mavericks is looking increasingly like iOS, the flat design of iOS 7 is almost certainly going to make its way to Mac OS X, and technologies like Dashboard, iCloud and Documents In The Cloud have shown that Apple is trying to unify parts (if not the whole) of its two operating systems.
The Microsoft Surface: a warning from history
Microsoft has repeatedly shown that this can’t be done successfully. First with its stylus controlled Windows Mobile phones, and more recently with Windows 8 and the Microsoft Surface Tablet. While Apple has kept a clear division between iOS and Mac OS X, Microsoft has unified its tablet and desktop hardware into a single Windows 8 package. The recent announcement that Microsoft has lost $900 million on the Surface alone is enough of a warning sign.
The multi-touch march of time
One key reason why Apple should reconsider the idea of a touchscreen Mac, is that many people now reach for the screens on a MacBook Air instinctively. The idea of multi-touch is no longer a novelty, but a fairly accepted means of input. Ideas like pinch to zoom, natural scrolling, and double-tap focus have become part of the everyday lexicon of computer gesture interaction. People might not expect multi-touch on a laptop as a given, but they are instinctively reaching for it.
While people are not idiots and can quickly determine that multi-touch isn’t the way to control a MacBook, this does highlight the a lack of consistency between interfaces.
3D motion & voice control Mac or iPad Pro?
Two other facts stand in the way of a touchscreen Mac. The first is the impending arrival to Mac OS X of new control technologies: 3D motion control displayed in the Leap device, Apple is considered to be testing this out as well as multi-touch. Alongside this we believe that Siri is being developed with the eventual aim of being integrated into Mac OS X. Both of these may offer a compelling future for the Mac that leapfrogs multi-touch entirely.
The second is that just because the Mac is the main way to work and be creative in Apple’s environment, doesn’t mean that the iPad isn’t a productive powerhouse. In recent years the iPad has swiftly moved from being a content viewer to being a pretty effective work tool. The various productivity and creative apps have made it an effective replacement for the Mac for many mobile worked. It wouldn’t take much for Apple to push iOS further along as a serious business machine, with an integrated keyboard. Apple aficionados may baulk at the idea of the iPad being the Macs successor, but if any company is capable of killing of its own products in favour of new ones it’s Apple.
Time will tell: but we think the idea of a portable touchscreen workhorse is overdue. Just because the Microsoft Surface has failed doesn’t mean that the idea is dead, it just needs somebody to bring it to life properly.