The Uncertain Future of the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar

4 minute read
| Particle Debris

It’s been one year now with the 2016 MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar. What’s the verdict? Here’s some great analysis.

Play piano on your MacBook Pro Touch Bar with Touch Bar Piano

Touch Bar Piano is one of the cool things for the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar.

The Particle Debris article of the week is from Chuq Von Rospach. (Actually two articles, and the second is discussed here on page 2.)

This essay is particularly interesting to me because I haven’t seen a thoughtful analysis of the Touch Bar all year. That may be because it has more or less sunk into technical obscurity. As author Von Rospach says:

So what’s the future of the Touch Bar? I don’t know. I’m not sure Apple does, either. I was fascinated that when Apple released the iMacs earlier this year not one word was mentioned about the Touch Bar or TouchID and support for them via an updated keyboard or trackpad was nowhere to be found. I’m taking that as an indication that after the lackluster response to this with the laptop releases, they’ve gone back to the drawing board a bit before rolling it out further.

I think the reason for this inattention by Apple may be related to the dark years of the Mac: 2015-2016. That’s when Apple got distracted and stopped updating its Macs on a timely basis. But one technology seemed to be dwelled on, and that’s the Touch Bar. Because a lot of engineering effort was put into the Touch Bar (and its follow-on technologies) my guess is that some executives believed that the Mac was being properly attended to.

We know now, it wasn’t. And that colored the community’s thoughts, initially, on the Touch Bar.

Touch Bar Analysis

Author Von Rospach delves into a considered analysis of the Touch Bar, and you should read it in full. (It also generated a lot of reader feedback which resulted in his part II.) One key comment, which resonated with me was:

So having lived with the Touch Bar and Touch ID sensor for months and then migrated away from them again, I’ve found they seem to be solving problems I don’t really have.

And therein lies the rub. Author Von Rospach talks about how he bought a new iMac 5K and described how, with increased use of that computer, he didn’t really miss the Touch Bar because there are equivalent technologies that are just as easy to use.

Another factor that stole the thunder from the Touch Bar during the dark years was the technically aggressive competition from Microsoft and HP. While Apple was focusing on the aesthetics of the user interface of the Mac, the competition was delivering faster systems with more memory for demanding technical professionals.

That’s why there was so much pushback when Apple tried, in vain, to position the mostly obsolete Intel Skylake-based 2016 MacBook Pro with a limit of 16 GB of RAM as the “professional” replacement for the (missing in action) updated Mac Pro.

Corrections were set in motion when Apple announced a new Mac Pro, and the icing was put on the Mac’s cake at WWDC 2017. Apple got the message: it’s okay to add UI refinements in addition to sheer power and professional capabilities. But not as a substitute.

Von Rospach’s closing remark hits the nail on the head.

Right now, my bet is on Apple having decided they fell in love with the Touch Bar and lost sight of the fact that Apple sells solutions to problems, not technologies. And here, they handed us this really neat technology, and it fell rather flat in the market.

But wait. There’s more. After some reader feedback, author Von Rospach had some additional thoughts and clarity on all this. That’s on page 2.

Next Page: The News Debris For The Week Of August 28th. The Touch Bar’s future.

15 Comments Add a comment

  1. geoduck

    A good couple of articles. This time last year I was really jonsing for a new MacBook Pro. My 2012 non Retina 15″ was showing its age, really starting to limit what I could do. I’d upgraded it as far as I could. I eagerly awaited the new MacBook Pros that promised a full rework of the line.

    Then they came out, thinner, of course, with adequate, if not spectacular processors, and limitations to memory, upgradability, etc. On the other hand it had a nifty panel above the keyboard that promised all sorts of things, IF software companies decided to use it. All this for a numbingly steep price increase. I pondered it for a few days and then bought a 27″ iMac. Yes I gave up portability, my iPad is filling more of that roll anyway, but it was the new MacBook Pro itself that made me switch. (I was so disappointed I came really close to getting a laptop and paving it with Linux.)

    The TouchBar is intriguing, but until it expands to other systems outside of two models of MacBook Pro, it’s not going to set the world on fire. Look at it this way. You’re a developer. You know that 75% of your users work on desktops and the rest on laptops, some of which are the new MacBook Pro. Would you be in a hurry to spend the time and expense of adding support for it or dedicate resources to improving your product for all of your users?

    Here’s hoping that the iMac Pro ushers in a desktop keyboard with a TouchBar. If they don’t I’d expect the TouchBar will end up being a dead end.

  2. aardman

    The TouchBar is like the clock in those old VHS machines. You get the idea that it might be useful but it seems that to access that utility, it will require some effort to learn how to set up and operate it. Most people stop at that point and so we had tens of millions of VHS machines in people’s homes blinking at 00:00:00.

    Apple has always been very good at making technology non-intimidating but I don’t think they were able to do that with the TouchBar. The small squint-inducing display in stumble-finger tight quarters might be delivering a first impression that scares users away.

  3. geoduck

    @aardman
    Ah yes the VHS clock. Most of the ones I saw flashed 12:00 over and over.
    Gave rise to the derogatory term we used for someone who had no tech skills: “Noon Flasher “.

  4. SteveC

    I’ve always wondered if the touchBar is something whose real purpose is not simply a function-key replacement strip on a laptop.

    Suppose the TouchBar were released on its own with Bluetooth as a generalized input device like the trackpad but configurable…
    embedded 3-5 position led touch sensitive strip as smart replacement for physical switches…built in power. licensed suppliers who want smart controls on devices..

    Could be used to engage in dynamic ways with beacons…

    OS needs an environment to develop inputs from these devices without the device being in the market

    laptop keyboard is a good environment to begin letting developers work with the software and acquainting users with device…

  5. wab95

    John:

    Just a couple thoughts about the touch bar, with the caveat that, although I’ve played with it at Apple Stores, I don’t own, nor have I used, under real work conditions, a touch bar enabled MBP.

    First, I think that the two Von Rospach pieces are excellent, make not only insightful but plausible observations and deductions about where Apple may be headed with the technology and why, and are a must read for those interested in the topic of not simply the Touch Bar but secure enclave enabled technology and the services that depend on them.

    Second, I have also shared the opinion that the Touch Bar enabled MBP is technology mis-aimed and inexpertly applied, and hence solves no problem. This was supposed to be Apple’s response to touch-enabled laptop – like devices or PCs, which reflects Apples philosophy about the PC, where it fits and the role it plays in an expanding platform of increasingly capable devices served by an increasingly prevalent and capable AI (Siri). This is where I thought that Von Rospach might go with his piece, rather than the other path of Apple’s development strategy for Touch ID and the secure enclave vis a vis the Touch Bar that he took it – an equally appropriate discussion. In my view, this is really a discussion about Apple’s grander vision and direction, in which these topics are lesser players.

    As to Apple’s vision, I think this is both far too complex for a single piece, let alone comment, to address, as well as a work, a part of which is experimental, that is actively evolving and whose future is uncertain, but will depend, in no small measure, upon its adaptability to user needs and solving real problems whilst preserving the highest possible level of personal digital security.

    Specifically, Apple appear to see the PC and its supportive software as an evolutionarily mature product with a defined niche beyond which it is not destined to evolve. It appears to play a principal but supportive role to a host of nimble, powerful and adaptable mobile devices, including wearables, that extend digital computational power to places where a PC could never go, and where, if Apple’s big gamble pays off, the PC isn’t even needed. And that gamble is AI, the new, emerging and eventual real power power behind the platform’s throne.

    MS’s calculus and bet appear to be not simply philosophically, but functionally and fundamentally different, with vastly different implications for the future. Theirs, to my observation, appears to be a legacy of the ‘Windows everywhere’ commitment that drove MS to become the colossus that it is, and that was intended to provide MS with an all-encompassing hegemony over all things digital. Except that it did not. Not only did Windows, as a technology, not anticipate and usher in the internet, the world wide web and the search services that underly it – MS had to play hard ball catch up with all of these – it did not anticipate nor could Windows readily adapt to the mobile revolution of the last decade and now the wearables and other smart devices revolution currently underway in this decade. With its current offerings, MS appear to be saying, ‘Look! Windows can do that, too’. Perhaps. And perhaps Windows can be shoe-horned into any number of solutions that almost address any number of emerging uses, but as a platform, it has only so much runway. Eventually, and I’m confident that Nadella and team know this, the MS platform is going to have to make a radical shift beyond Windows if they want to expand MS as a modern, adaptable platform. I’m betting that this is underway at MS as we speak.

    While any one single Apple device or product may succeed or fail, be superior or inferior to similar offers by competitors, what Apple are doing, in my view, is leveraging every new skill set to produce solutions to current and anticipated problems, in which the coordination, harmonisation and heavy lifting is done by AI. Not the macOS. Not the iOS. Not watchOS. Not tvOS, or any future single OS derivative. Or device. Any one, and all of these, can be replaced with more capable tools. Apple’s vision is Star Trek. On steroids, but without teleportation and warp drive. At least for now. It’s ‘Siri, make it so’, at which point the AI will accomplish said task with the nearest most capable device at hand, without the human having to dither with complex instructions. Like Picard saying, ‘Computer, plot a course to the Aldebaran star system and have us within 4 hours time’, and it’s done.

    Where does that leave us with the Touch Bar? Uncertain because, in my view, it is unclear whether or not the Touch Bar was ever meant to solve a specific problem, or instead to address a market demand for a touch interface on the PC. These are not the same things.

    Indeed, following the above argument, if it is correct, I would argue that questions about the future of the Touch Bar are the wrong questions. It’s not about the Touch Bar. It never was, hence the muted practical user response. It is, as it has always been, about the broader vision of platform interface, and how best to extend, by the most efficacious but economically efficient means, digital computational power to the human to where he or she needs it, even to the reaches of ‘where no one has gone before’.

    • SteveC

      “..in my view, it is unclear whether or not the Touch Bar was ever meant to solve a specific problem, or instead to address a market demand for a touch interface on the PC…”

      Why does your ” or instead” posit only one other plausible explanation?
      I say it was never that limited in its ambitions…

  6. Lee Dronick

    Ah yes the VHS clock. Most of the ones I saw flashed 12:00 over and over.
    Gave rise to the derogatory term we used for someone who had no tech skills: “Noon Flasher “.

    Don’t blame the user who had no tech skills for not being to outwit that incredibly complicated user interface, blame the designers and programmers.

    • SteveC

      exactly so

      garbage in -> garbage out. This is a lazy paradigm.

      no garbage in. This is one signature of design

      blinking lights should never have been allowed to be to solution!

  7. wab95

    @SteveC:

    I quite agree with you, the Touch Bar as a tech investment has far greater potential and use cases than its current implementation. Rather my binary proposition had more to do with truncating the length of my post.

    As for the Touch Bar, both Chuq Von Rospach and Josh Centers have provided additional thoughts on its expansion. I’m confident many at Apple have already thought beyond its current implementation. It’s the implementation that has drawn criticism, and has resulted in a lack of user enthusiasm.

    I’ve tried to reserve judgement on its utility to me personally until I can actually work with it. Time and again, this has been the experience in the community that, only in working with a piece of tech, does one truly appreciate its value. That said, a substantial number of those who have done so, have come away with the feelings expressed by the above-named authors.

    If anything, I think that the current implementation has been too timid. I would be intrigued to at least experiment with a truly adaptable and configurable keyboard, not unlike the touchpad on the command console of the Enterprise, as opposed to the fixed mechanical keyboards we have now. This would take the keyboard motif to another level entirely. It would expand the range of adaptable use cases to near limitless possibilities, getting beyond function keys and keyboard combos, to keyboard configurations designed for specific professions and crafts, particularly if pre-configured versions of these are designed with input from professionals in those fields, and allowed for two further modifications: 1) individualised modification, where a user to take any preset configuration and adjust it to their preferences, and 2) dynamic adaptability based on AI observation on actual personal use, not unlike word suggestion on your iPhone.

    Finally, a few reviewers, like the two above, have argued that the absence of tactile feedback limits Touch Bar technology. Perhaps the same Touch Bar technology, married with haptic feedback, would provide tactile feedback, permitting one to work without taking their eyes off of the screen, like today’s mechanical keyboards. One could feel if their fingers miss a key, or locate new rows etc.

    In any case, the technology opens many possibilities beyond its present implementation. Apple’s task is to determine what problem they wish to solve with it, and whether that solution can be made consistent and consumer ready.

  8. SteveC

    Looking @ TBar from the OS point of view. These appear to be directly descended from NSToolbar et al…
    So the macOS changes required were probably minimal…

    I personally believe that getting TouchID on the keyboard was the cost driver and TB got to come along for the ride… Enclave is most definitely the most expensive component..

    I believe Apple knew there would be a tepid reaction to TB for all above reasons, but the dataset acquired by engineering for the whole package – ‘priceless’…..
    the dataset of developer requests to the v 1 also very valuable…

    I believe they also knew that the implementation of TouchID would be more important and better loved by the customers…

    Over & Out

  9. Old UNIX Guy

    As my username on this site indicates, I’m a Mac user because it’s based on UNIX. How that relates to the touch bar is simple:

    No escape key = No way I purchase

    Seriously Apple, I will stick with my 2015 MBP to the day it’s no longer supported (and then some) rather than buy the crippled pieces of junk you call “Pro” laptops these days.

    Old UNIX Guy

      • Old UNIX Guy

        Lee – you are absolutely right about that. I know several people who are doing just that. Some other things I could do to solve problems with the 2016/17 MBP’s that don’t exist in the 2015 models are:

        1) always use an external keyboard so that I don’t have to listen to the sound of machine gun fire as I type on the built in keyboard.

        2) buy a dock so that I can have my ports back.

        3) buy an adaptor (and lose one of my limited number of USB-C ports) so that I can get magsafe functionality back.

        And on and on … and I’m not willing to bend over backwards to make a compromised product fit into my life. IT should fit into MINE.

        And the worst part of all of this is that all of these things are because of either: 1) Jony Ive’s unhealthy obsession with thinness, or 2) the fact that Apple is desperate to show that they actually can innovate on the Mac.

        This all makes me really sad, as my 2015 MBP is the very best laptop I have ever owned.

        Old UNIX Guy

  10. wab95

    @Old UNIX Guy:

    Your post reminded me of something that I’ve intended to write for awhile, but have never found the appropriate place – until now; and that’s about the need to upgrade my MBP. Thank you for the segue.

    I recall an article in MacWorld years ago (perhaps written in 2010 or 2011) in which new Mac laptops were being reviewed, and the authors opined that it might be the last laptop that one would ever need to purchase. Their reasoning was about CPU and GPU speed and capability, OS upgrade potential, SSD hard drives, RAM and the like, and that, from a practical real world position, for most users, it mightn’t any longer be possible to see any discernible improvement, at least in those metrics (rather like screen resolutions).

    I am still using, despite a number of opportunities to upgrade, my 2012 MPB Retina Core i7 with 16 GB RAM and 0.75TB SSD, now running macOS Sierra without breaking a sweat. The machine is in great condition, been all over the planet in some of the most hostile work environments (elements, not people – not usually), runs anything I need it to, and will be upgradeable to macOS High Sierra when it rolls out. The OS updates effectively give me a new, more capable machine with each new version. If anything, I might install a larger SSD, but even that is not essential. Apple will need to roll out something truly next gen to entice me to trade up. I had thought that the Kaby Lake processor would do that, but the 16 GB RAM cap, which I already have, was a show stopper for the latest gen MBPs.

    There is an important new variable that affects my MBP upgrade incentive, namely my iPad Pro 10.5″ which I use for much of my work and travel. That device has become my must-upgrade, must have when I roll device, and the one that I shamelessly upgrade with each iteration. Compared to the MBP, it’s cheap, but highly capable for most tasks that I need for my line of work. And the next OS, iOS 11, promises to endow it with more powerful multitasking capability.

    For the first time in my professional life, my laptop has been relegated to second tier importance for must have bleeding edge upgrades. Can’t say I didn’t see it coming, but its arrival at this stage has been a surprise nonetheless.

  11. DJR12

    I see the TouchBar’s failure to catch on as part of a broader phenomenon within Apple right now. If I were a member of the hardware team, I’d be getting pretty tired of the software crew not coming up with innovative ways to use the hardware innovations being provided. To me, the TouchBar is a lot like Force Touch or 3D Touch — nice little bit of input technology that Apple hasn’t really provided compelling use cases for. In all of these cases, Better Touch Tool does a far better job of allowing the user to derive benefit from the hardware than Apple itself does.

    That said, there are little nuggets of usefulness to the Touch Bar already, in Apple’s native apps. It’s much easier to add a time to a Reminder via the Touch Bar, for instance. It sometimes pops up handy references to people in a Calendar invitation. I’d like to see more of that and more customizability from Apple on this front.

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