Apple spent years testing if touchscreens made sense on the Mac

By , Nov 14, 2016

iMac with Retina 5K display image 002

As first reviews of the new MacBook Pro hit the web this morning, Apple’s marketing boss Phil Schiller took to Backchannel to dispel some of the myths saying his company has been stubbornly dismissive of the idea of a touchscreen Mac for no apparent reason. Schiller reveals that Apple has actually spent years testing if touchscreens made sense on the Mac before realizing that touching things on a 27-inch screen quickly becomes “absurd”.

The Apple Watch, iPhone, iPad, MacBook and iMac are all distinctively designed computers, each one serving a specific purpose and providing a user experience optimized just for it. Apple came to this conclusion after years of testing if touchscreens might make 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,” said Schiller. “We’ve absolutely come away with the belief that it isn’t the right thing to do. Our instincts were correct.”

From a technology standpoint, there’s absolutely nothing preventing Apple from adding a touchscreen to the Mac. But as soon as you begin to exercise the idea of a touchscreen Mac, you quickly realize that computers rely on mouse pointers and user interface elements that are designed with the precision of individual pixels in mind.

“If we were to do Multi-Touch on the screen of the notebook, that wouldn’t be enough” because simply adding a touchscreen and code to translate touches into mouse events would violate the very basic functionality that is intrinsic to the form of a notebook or desktop computer in the first place.

On mobile devices, however, touch targets are much larger. Applications are optimized for touch-based interactions and the operating system and the user interface are designed around the lack of menu bars you normally see in everyday Mac apps.

Whilst adding touch to that massive 27-inch screen on your iMac would make for a superb presentation, reaching over the air to constantly touch screen targets would make for a terrible user experience.

“Can you imagine a 27-inch iMac where you have to reach over the air to try to touch and do things?”, asked Schiller. “That becomes absurd.”

Fair enough. But then again, why not optimize and redesign macOS and the menu bars for finger-based input? That way, you could satisfy those who have been holding their fingers crossed for a touchscreen Mac, no?

As per Schiller, doing so would ruin the experience for people using the trackpad/mouse. “You can’t optimize for both,” he says. “It’s the lowest common denominator thinking.”

MacBook Pro Touch Bar finger image 003

As for the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, Schiller said that having an interactive place where your hands are down on the keyboard is “celebrating what makes a notebook a great notebook.”

“This notebook design has been with us for 25 years and that fills a need for many people,” said Schiller, who is Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at Apple.

Okay, but what does Schiller make of the criticism leveled at the MacBook Pro’s adoption of USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 technology without providing a single USB-A port? In his mind, it’s a non-issue because most people won’t be needing dongles anyways.

“We’re absolutely more sure than ever that we’ve done the right thing.”

Still, Apple cut dongle prices on its web store—likely in an admission that some users out there are being sensitive to this issue. Addressing the pushback regarding the new MacBook Pro and responding to criticism that Apple has lost its innovative edge, the executive said this:

We work hard on these things and they are the best. 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.

There’s always something for a critic to beat up on anybody’s notebook, because you have to make choices. I know our team made very smart choices and this is the best notebook that can be made with the greatest technology.

Schiller underscored that Apple is building this new notebook for the future and added that in five years the nascent USB-C technology will be in its prime.

Source: Backchannel

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  • JayV81

    I tried a Microsoft laptop with touch screen. It doesn’t feel natural, its cumbersome. I want my desktop to be a desktop and my tablet to be a table.

    • Jose Rivera

      Me family has a touch screen HP computer and I have to agree with this article… Computers are a whole different area than smartphones and tablets. I tried using the touch screen for a day and I couldn’t do it because on certain motions, it’s hard to get certain things that are on the edges, in recessed screens (meaning monitors with a bezel that goes over the screen instead of being flush with the screen).

    • :D

      Yep tablets make pretty good tables 🙂

  • Bugs Bunnay

    They can have it as an option. Stronger together!

    • Bill

      LOL! Hey Bugs…how you holding up? Man I just keep replaying spicy videos of the nay-sayers… can’t get enough! 😀

      • Bugs Bunnay

        I’m having a blast! There was a video of a black person who voted trump and made a video having the BEST last laugh to those who said he’ll lose and no one will vote for him. It’s on infowars if you want to see it. It’s gold!

  • Alex Wilson

    For a select few a touch screen might be a wonderful thing, frankly I don’t want to drag my finger all over my screen, my mouse does it much faster with less movement. I also don’t want to clean my screen that often. I could be alone by my iPad screen shows a lot of finger marks and oil, I don’t want that on my computer screen.

  • Gethro

    Watching the video feel so satisfying…

  • ok how about a little bit of truth, instead of apple’s lies. here’s what’s ACTUALLY going on:

    1. if apple releases touch screen macbooks, there will be an immediate need/demand for keyboards that fold over so that the screen itself can become the interface (ie: it turns into a tablet). The key is that , unlike other demands (such as more ram) the outcry for this will be far and wide and impossible for apple to ignore.
    2. Once apple takes this step, as they inevitably will have to given the significant demand that will be generated for it, it will eat into ipad sales.
    3. Because: the product that apple refuses to make , the one that the market is craving for, is a super high end ipad that can double as a laptop. These are WILDLY popular on the windows side. It’s what saved the surface from being a dinosaur relegated to history to actually being a viable competitor to the macbook/ipad.

    But what comes next is the REAL reason apple refuses to make a touchscreen macbook:

    4. But here’s the end game that’s the even bigger picture that apple is desperately hoping people don’t figure out: if a mobile mac ever becomes touch ready, and especially if the screen folds over and it starts to generate an ipad like feel, it will immediately become painfully obvious to the masses that they have full access/root access to their device if they buy a mac, but very limited access to their device and its hard drive if they buy an ipad, which will only further diminish ipad sales. It will also create painfully uncomfortable questions for apple, by both the media and the public at large, about why it’s necessary to prevent root access to a mobile touch screen device like an ipad, but allow it on a macbook.

    Schiller is a complete and total liar. He always has been. This has nothing to do with whether or not a touch screen is viable. It has everything to do with perpetuating this ridiculous ruse that you should not have root access to your ipad or mobile device.

    And with this move, along with the stupidity of a “pro” laptop that doesn’t go beyond 16 gigs of ram (and with the removal of 17″ laptops, the devaluation of the pro line in general, the removal of the xServe, the demotion of osX server and so much more…), people are finally starting to ask, in large quantities: who the hell does apple think they are to decide what is right for us or what we need?

    indeed, apple, who the hell do you think you are?

    • So do you know that it is all lies because you work for Apple?

      I’m not sure if you’re aware or not, but the research into using touch screens on laptops isn’t anything new. Apple did this study almost 10 years ago now. This isn’t a new claim in response to criticism, this is something they have always stated.

      I agree with point 1, but the problem is that OS X isn’t touch optimized. While it technically could be used with a finger it wouldn’t be up to Apple’s standard’s for excellence. Navigating menus, pressing things that need cursor precision, or even doing things that require hover wouldn’t really work with a touch screen. MacOS is designed to work with left click, right click, keyboard input and iOS is designed to work with a finger.

      Microsoft combined these and hasn’t managed to gain much traction. It took 3 generations of the surface before they stopped losing money on the line and even to this day they can’t beat iPad sales. People have complained that Windows 8+ is too much like using a cellphone OS on the desktop and others have complained that the apps are all over the place in terms of design and it has been a mess overall. While it does have convenience, no one has figured out a way to properly swap between interfaces in a way that works yet.

      Apple is currently ignoring touch not for any of the reasons that you state, but for all the reasons that they state. Namely, current laptop form factors make touch a bad ergonomic experience and MacOS isn’t optimized for touch. What happens to apps? Does Apple require apps to be universal and installable on the Mac? And when you switch to desktop mode do those apps go away? Do you have to use your laptop in touch mode to use them? Do all apps have to support larger screens or do they get stuck in a small box in the center of the screen? Etc.

      There may be a day in the future when Apple does this, but the current design philosophy in user input experience doesn’t lend itself to this sort of setup without sacrificing experience on some level.

  • hkgsulphate

    I have a samsung laptop with touchscreen. I just….never use it and regret not getting a macbook >.>