A recently published patent filing shows how the MacBook Pro could take some design cues from the iPad, making the devices even more similar than they are now. That doesn't mean the Mac's days are numbered, but it does mean we could see a Mac laptop at some point with a substantially different design that focuses on customizable touch interfaces.
MacBooks with virtual keyboards? Could be.
The patent application describes a MacBook keyboard area that's a multitouch surface instead of a traditional keyboard and trackpad combination. Users can decide what interface elements they want and where they're positioned, and developers could make customized interfaces for their apps, too.
Users could, for example, position a QWERTY keyboard, trackpad, and number pad on the touch surface for typing and data entry, then switch to a mixing board interface for music editing. The surface could also offer tactile feedback to mimic actual keyboards, unlike the iPad's onscreen keyboard which only displays the keys you touch.
Apple would have to find a way to create the sensation of raised keys and motion when they're pressed, otherwise most people wouldn't be able to effectively use their Mac's keyboard. That may be something Apple has already addressed with a different patent describing a way to make on-screen elements physically raise up from the display surface, which would give users a way to not only see keys, but actually feel them, too.
What Apple is describing in the patent application sounds strikingly like a big iPhone 6s or iPad display set in a MacBook Pro where the keyboard and trackpad currently sit. Assuming Apple does this right, a configurable digital interface surface could be an intriguing way to move beyond the keyboard interface we use today and based on a design that's about 150 years old.
Putting these pieces together in a way that makes a multitouch display a viable alternative to a traditional keyboard and trackpad is likely years away, but the patent does show Apple gets that we're raising a generation that's learning touch and tap interfaces first and may not have a strong need for mechanical keyboards. Working now on the physical interfaces that make sense for those people, instead of assuming they won't ever change is a smart move and fits perfectly with Steve Jobs's old mantra: Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.
[Thanks to Patently Apple for the heads up]