With the Touch Bar, Apple gives us a glimpse into a future keyboardless MacBook

MacBook Pro Touch Bar 008

Apple have a proven track record of ardently pursuing their vision, no matter the cost. The latest MacBook Pro serves as another reminder that the company is wholly unimpressionable by outside opinions, keeping up the dream of more simplistic products with every iteration, all the while taking away your beloved USB ports or SD card slots.

The ends might be justifiable, but the means can regardless lead to frustration with the most patient customers and complete alienation of the more short-fused ones. This cycle repeats every other year, when Apple decides to roll out hardware that is often just a little ahead of the curve.

Much has been made of the MacBook Pro’s latest changing of guard in the USB department. For now, the story goes, Apple has simply done their homework and found USB-C to be the technology fit for the immediate future. But the days of all ports are numbered if rumours are to be believed, as Apple generally contends that less is more and wireless the ultimate endgame. It does not take a giant leap to draw that conclusion and granted its validity, focus on the port situation has drowned out another discussion we clearly need to have at this point: Apple plans to get rid of the physical keyboard, and with the launch of Touch Bar on MacBook Pro the process is well under way.

All along we have been thinking Apple is first and foremost concerned with slowly ridding their MacBook lines of ports without risking too much headwind, one generation at a time. We were not wrong, as evidenced by the 12″ MacBook featuring next to no ports and the new MacBook Pro seriously curtailing the Pro in the name (unless dongles).

Interestingly, major keyboard transformations of late, on any MacBook line, have been handled differently by most media outlets: Yes, they are reported on and sized up critically, but no, they are barely contextualized. Why are the gaps between each character key narrowing, why are the wobbly keys being replaced for Apple’s butterfly mechanics which permit less travel?

People paying attention to Apple’s patent filings will have heard of some of their patents for haptic touch surfaces pertaining to MacBook, but things have clearly not been reprised often enough and at times been discounted as outlandish under the banner that ‘not everything Apple patent they really want to release’. Suspending the discussion of the precise technology behind the keyboard (Force Touch will obviously play its part), I believe that with the release of the new MacBook Pro, a touch keyboard is no longer just in the realm of possibility but definitely happening, and fast at that. Apple’s latest arrival gives us more hints than ever about it, so here’s what I consider the three biggest of them:

Butterfly keys

MacBok Pro 2016 No Touch Bar keyboard 2

Over the last years, Apple has dramatically reshaped the technology behind the MacBook’s keypad. The cost sunk on this by R&D alone are improbable to have been sanctioned solely for reasons of wanting a slightly thinner laptop once again. It quite literally goes deeper than that.

Butterfly technology is trickling down the MacBook lines and it is not a long shot to predict them supplant the remaining legacy keyboards before long. Not only does butterfly hog less vertical space in the machines, but it more crucially also takes a seemingly innocuous step towards the feeling of typing on a clean surface. Customers still get the traditional keyboard and yet butterfly tech is undeniably closing up on the iPad typing experience. To lean on the observable demise of the iPhone’s Home button, logic dictates the next MacBook could feature near flat keys – however still physically cut out – that harness Force Touch to emulate the feeling of key travel.

If this analogy holds water and we bring it to an end, the final step will be the removing of keys plus Force Touch for glass plus Force Touch, just like iPhone 8 will allegedly drop the Home button cutout altogether.

The growth of the trackpad

By the same token, the Force Touch enabled trackpads are gaining ground in terms of size and prowess relative to the physical keys. The trackpad has always been one of my favorite selling points of MacBooks since they are dead accurate and gestures implemented nicely. Take nothing away from the trackpads released before Force Touch came to grace them, but it goes without saying that the new generation of it has added another layer of intelligence to them.

Why is that a sign for keys to slowly bite the dust you ask? Because simply put, the Force Touch trackpad has outsmarted physical keys in every respect. Mechanical keys cannot discern between various levels of pressure, they can’t tell if one or two fingers are placed on the surface. The list goes on, but if we skip forward to the bottom line, the fact of the matter is that we are witnessing a tug of war between the two input methods and the trackpad is winning.

It is by no means a coincidence that it happens to be another instance of a clean, buttonless surface being on the rise. Operating on the assumption that characters are eventually going to get stomped, the trackpad might merge with the keyboard and ceaselessly bleed into it.

Touch Bar

MacBook Pro Touch Bar finger image 003

Call it the ultimate giveaway, the backbone of this article or the elephant in the room, what’s clear is that this is the most straightforward foray into glass panels replacing traditional parts of our keyboards. Its meaning and scope for future flat keyboards is self-evident.

Based on early reviews, Touch Bar is rated highly and will on any account wear on. The question is no longer if the feature is here to stay, but rather where Touch Bar will expand to next. If I were to put money on it, I would venture that the days of the physical space bar and cursor keys are probably numbered.

Why oh why, Apple?

If and when the trend towards a touch keyboard on MacBooks becomes more salient, speculation with respect to Apple’s ulterior motive will be rife. Since it is early days, there is only so much we can surmise right now. With that in mind, reasons for Apple to strive for a keyboard consisting of one single part are not far to seek, which brings us full circle back to Apple pursuing their product vision no matter what.

Think impermeability of the keyboard, think thinness, think about the same technology migrating over to iPad. For all we know, the only noticeable difference between iPad and MacBook could become whether you like one or two slates of glass on your product. Granted all of this is a couple of years away and the ideas not all new – but with the arrival of Touch Bar we now have all but certainty that it is going to happen. Touch Bar is only a precursor of much more fundamental change coming to MacBook, and it looks as though that change is approaching fast.