The Evolution of the Mac, Pt 2: Touch Screens

For all of the Mac's existence, since 1984, the Macintosh has been driven by a mouse. Now, at the dawn of the tablet era, will the Mac need to eventually acquire a touch screen as well?

The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) once described how people respond to new technical ideas in three stages.

  1. It can't be done.
  2. It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing.
  3. I knew it was a good idea all along!

It's all about touch. Everywhere, all the time. (Image credit: Apple)

I think this will eventually happen to the Mac with respect to the touch screen technology. Notice that I said eventually . That's because millions of Apple customers have grown up with the Macintosh over the last 28 years, and an abrupt, binary switch to touch screen Macs isn't called for. (I mentioned binary thinking in The Evolution of the Mac, Pt 1: Siri.)

One can see that there are already technological forces at work that will bring this about. The first is a simple matter of time. As legacy Mac users grow older and younger customers start to embrace tablets by the hundreds of millions, the cultural norm will shift more and more towards the idea of touching the display. (Screens get fingerprints. Big deal. Clean it.) I can cite several examples.

In my first fictional account, a father is sitting with his five year old daughter in front of an iMac. The girl reaches out to the screen to resize a photo of mom, and nothing happens. She turns and says, "Daddy, it's broken!"

In reality, Microsoft is pushing this idea of children interacting with displays. In this Microsoft ad, a little girl is working with a Sony Tap 20 (a table tablet) running Windows 8 via touch. It's significant that the ad shows a child. Microsoft, for once, is looking to the future. Eventually, the "gorilla arm" meme (or stigma) will give way to a new generation. (David Pogue explains gorilla arm. I think he's right, but only for this generation.) Apple, will eventually say something like, "That damned gorilla arm is holding us back."

Microsoft gets it right. (Image credit: Microsoft)

In a slightly different mode, the second example is the hilarious scene in Star Trek IV where Scotty, who grew up in a world of voice interactions with a computer goes back in time and encounters an original Mac from 1984. Naturally, he picks up the mouse and starts talking into it. We smile because we realize we are a product of our times, whether it's voice input or touch screens. In today's version of that movie, Scotty would reach out, touch an iMac screen and nothing would happen.

Star Trek IV (Image credit: Paramount)

Finally, in the near term, I started to wonder if perhaps virtualization on the Mac might be affected. The thesis is that Macs don't have touch screens, so, in time, customers who are using Windows 8, under virtualization on a Mac, will become frustrated that they can't enjoy the touch screen capabilities of Windows 8 -- like they can on touch screen PCs.

I asked several experts about this. Neil Ticktin, the EIC of MacTech Journal said, "I think this is a long long way off because so many PCs do not have touch, and won't for a long time to come. In other words, Microsoft will have to present a plenty good experience without touch being available."

David Sobotta, a 20 year Apple employee, now writing for, told me, "First off, the touch experience on Windows 8 isn't that great... I suspect MS will get touch right eventually. They are persistent if nothing else."

John Uppendahl from Parallels doesn't see an issue there either, but notes, “Thinking about future hardware offering on Apple platforms, we anticipate that we would be able to support future touch from Apple, as we’re already learning a lot about that with our Parallels Mobile app for iOS devices.”

Based on all this, I still think the handwriting is on the wall (or the display!)  The traditional idea that only the iPad can have a touch screen will give way to the idea that we can, if we wish, touch our Mac's displays. It won't happen over night because 66 million active Mac users are accustomed to what they're doing, products of their era. But it'll come, in time. Hopefully, Scotty won't arrive again for a few more years.

Given the rate of technology development and competition from companies desperate to get a jump on Apple, I think we'll see Macs introduced with touch screen capability in about 4-5 years. Of course, they'll still work with a mouse. But they'll be there for iPad customers anxious to use larger screen, more powerful Macs in new, more productive ways. Just as that little girl in the Microsoft ad.

Call it a reverse halo effect. As tablets become pervasive, a family of powerful Macs that work just like tablets could provide that needed familiarity and power for a new generation.

Evolve or die.