The Evolution of the Mac, Pt 2: Touch Screens

| Analysis

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.


Popular TMO Stories



Unlike Siri and voice control I DO think touch screens are going to happen, sooner rather than later, and are a very good idea.

I just had a chance to spend a week with a ViewSonic 22” touch screen computer. It runs Android but otherwise is everything a touch screen iMac could be. I found it to be great. Add a USB or Bluetooth keyboard and it would replace an old fashioned keyboard/mouse system for a lot of users. For our purposes it’s not working because critical apps won’t run under Android and some that do need more power than the system has. Bump up from a dual core 1Ghz with 512Mb RAM to a Quad i5 with 4Gb RAM and it would scream. Essentially take the current iMac and add a touch screen as an option and it would be a winner.

If Apple were to do this, touchify the iMac, at first there would be resistance, then over time people would get used to touching, then within a couple of years it would seem normal. Heck for some of us it IS normal. Not having touch screen is more and more the exception. About once a month I forget and tap the screen on my MacBook Pro. The iPad has taught me to assume I can do that.


Again, the artist in me begs for Wacom-quality digitizing screens in addition to touch. If Apple really wants to recapture the graphic market, a Cintiq-quality iMac would be the way to go. :drool:

We might also see some ideas from the Windows 8 world in the laptop space.

Personally, I think Apple’s branding is ideal for this. Just have Mac OS 11 written with a big X and a small i; iOS interface that can give way to an OX X desktop with touchscreen integration.

Lee Dronick

“Again, the artist in me begs for Wacom-quality digitizing screens in addition to touch. “

When I first played with a MicroSoft Surface, the one before the current thing of that name, I wanted to finger paint on it.



I’m on a 21.5” iMac right now, and with the way I have the mouse’s tracking configured, I can go from the upper left corner to the lower right corner, without lifting my palm, in a fraction of a second. Why would I want to re-create that motion so inefficiently with a touch screen?

I have, and love an iPad 2. And touch makes perfect sense on it, because it sits flat on my desk, whereas my iMac’s screen is at nearly a 90 degree angle. A mouse just makes much more sense for a desktop computer, as does a trackpad on a laptop. The common denominator between using an iPad’s touch interface, and using a keyboard and mouse for my iMac (or a trackpad on a laptop), is that all of the control surfaces are flat/horizontal.

When computers first took off, carpel tunnel syndrome began making big news. I can’t imagine what sort of repetitive motion injuries would come from having to physically interact with a vertically-oriented touchscreen all day long.

I also seems terribly inefficient to be using a keyboard and mouse on a horizontal desk, then having to leave the desk and interact with the vertical screen. I just don’t see the advantage for any given application.

If touch screens do come to the Mac, it will be market forces driving it along, and not IMHO any serious advantage that a touch screen will bring.

The iPad touch experience is flawless because iOS was built from the ground up to use touch. Likewise, the Mac was built from the ground up to use a keyboard and mouse. I think the whole idea of a desktop or laptop with a touchscreen is just a gimmick or fad, akin to 3D televisions. I could see it useful—and necessary—on a convertible that can be used as either a desktop/laptop or tablet, but not on a dedicated desktop or laptop.

John Martellaro

mrmwebmax: Perhaps that’s binary thinking. We use the tool that best fits the situation. For example, I personally can’t draw with a mouse, but I can with a stylus.

It’s like saying, the virtual keyboard on an iPad is useless for writing novels. So eliminate it!  Of course it’s useless for THAT task, but nor for entering a password.  We attach a Bluetooth keyboard for a novel.

Another way to express Arthur C. Clarke’s observation is: “Everything stays the same—until it doesn’t.”




Perhaps that’s binary thinking. We use the tool that best fits the situation. For example, I personally can’t draw with a mouse, but I can with a stylus…. It’s like saying, the virtual keyboard on an iPad is useless for writing novels. So eliminate it!  Of course it’s useless for THAT task, but nor for entering a password.  We attach a Bluetooth keyboard for a novel.

Agreed with using the best tool for the job: a stylus for drawing, a real keyboard for serious (and lengthy) writing. Regarding, then, a hypothetical touchscreen iMac, what possible use of a touchscreen would enhance any type of computing on it?

I’ve got nothing against touch screens, as evidenced by the iPhone and iPad sitting beside me. The iPhone’s touchscreen is from a user interface perspective light years ahead of any smartphone interface that came before it. It was, and is, the perfect way to interact with a smartphone, and now a tablet as well.

So while we certainly could make a touchscreen iMac, how would that enhance the user experience, and improve on what we already have? If there’s some tangible improvement in user experience, I’d be all over it. But just because we can bring touchscreens to the Mac, doesn’t mean we should just for the sake of doing so.


John, I absolutely agree with you about different products suiting different needs. Unfortunately Apple’s tight reign on their models is restricting a lot of that customer choice. If Apple changes the iMac, it not only affects people who want an all-in-one computer, but also anyone who wants price/performance between a Mac Mini and a Mac Pro.

John Martellaro


what possible use of a touchscreen would enhance any type of computing on it?

If only you could see what I have to go through to publish an article!

Paul Goodwin

I’m with mrmwebmax on this. A human being sitting in front of a vertical screen computer lifting it’s arm and stretching to pinch and swipe is both inefficient and damaging to the human. swiping on a laptop in your lap is better because you wouldn’t have to lift the arm. swiping on a tablet is perfect. So if the future will have vertical large screen monitors, the interface device(s) are the highly efficient mouse and a tablet interface. I agree that market forces may require Apple to respond with a swiping option on the Macs, but I expect them to deliver a much more optimized solution than what is reaching the public now. I would expect that the better interface would be a very advanced form of Siri, or bio-mechanical. Perhaps glove-like sensors, maybe combined eyeglass-like eye tracking sensors. But reaching up to a screen all day at a desk? Nope. Nope. Nope. After a couple of years of that, you’d have to find a non-computing profession.


“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!”

There’s another, later one:
4. I wish there was an easier way to use the goddam machine!



Great series. I have enjoyed both parts 1 and 2.

In my personal experience, I observe how often, particularly on my MBP RD, with its crisp GUI, people reach out and touch the screen, half-expecting to make something happen. We, as a generation, are already moving towards touch on our conventional computers, even if it hasn’t quite happened. We’re ready for it. Voice remains something more remote. We are accustomed to using voice interface only for sentient interaction, and implicitly, do not (yet) regard our devices as sentient. Once a generation is accustomed to getting near sentient, or at least appropriate and timely, responses from their devices, this will rapidly inform expectations for a next-generation interface.

Apart from binary thinking, my observation is that we often evaluate the worth of a thing from a very personal perspective, with a temptation to extrapolate to the world at large, i.e. if it’s good for me, then it’s good for all, if it’s bad for me, then it’s a bad idea.

Permit me to highlight two points that you’ve made above, explicitly and implicitly:

1) Whether voice or touch interface, these will be options when they first come to the Mac, and not a ‘cold turkey’ or hard break with the past (i.e. binary). One will, undoubtedly, have the option to use that option or, if we prefer, a more ‘conventional’ interface, however defined. Older users will likely stay with convention, newer users, most likely will embrace their future with aplomb and relish.

This is about choice. We have evolved as human beings, to use multiple modalities when interacting with our environment and with each other. There are situations that demand voice interaction, others touch and still others visual, auditory and olfactory. Leaving aside the latter for the moment, all of these, on demand, provide the full-on and rich experience that enables us to make our contribution to the world around us. When it comes to our computers, we have taught ourselves to be content with a modality constrained interaction, like visual only. This is learnt behaviour and a limited, confining and unnatural experience when interacting with the world while trying to express ourselves. Why should the human be limited by the technology, rather than expand the technology to serve the human?

That said, I can think of circumstances, and envision a time, when during the same interaction, I may want to use the graphical interface, and in the next instant, touch and the next voice. For example, in dealing with a patient, I may want to discreetly bring up their bio data on the graphical interface and read through it, to protect patient privacy while others are in earshot. In the next, I may want the computer to show me their last MRI, CT or other recent image, and manually rotate it to the most optimal position for inspecting a lesion or foreign body (e.g. a shard buried in someone’s thigh); and with the next, while under ultrasonographic imaging, ask the computer to show me, relative to that lesion or foreign body, where my incision is and put that image on the screen in my field of vision.

This is not science fiction; this is the future. The more responsive our technology can be in multi-modality, the more useful it will be to us, and the more productive we will be. 

One more thought about voice, and this is addressed to a valid point that geoduck has made more than once; namely discrete input by voice against a multi-voice background - in other words, getting the voice interface to know which voice to listen and respond to. Voice print technology is already present, even if in its infancy. By the time we reach full on voice interface, computers will be able to do voice print, match and lock so long as the voice can be heard against background. Even in extreme environments, we are clever enough to come up with ways to ensure that our computers track and monitor the user for preferential input. I have little doubt that these future devices will rely heavily on bio-imprinting for both security and best possible user experience.

I, for one, welcome and am ready for that multi-modality user experience.


In considering any input device (touch screen included), one thing to keep in mind is the ERGONOMICS of it.
I don’t want to be reaching my arm out all day long to touch a screen (and I don’t want to be bending my neck down all day to look at a screen on my desk).
So I’m OK with Apple having a Touch Screen as an alternative input device, but Apple better not get STUPID (like it sometimes does) and say that “today is the end of all mouse sales and inputing—we’ve decided that you don’t need a mouse, since you can use your finger.”  Otherwise I’ll give them the finger on that day!


I’ll repeat my self.
How will architects, designers or experimenters going to use a touch screen or siri?
So your saying that they have to go to Linux because Macs have dumbed down!
Einsteins, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ives are not going to be happy because someone else will get the credit for their work – siri and Apps!

Lee Rutter

As a desktop, touch screen isn’t that practical to use all the time. However, there are certain times when reaching up and swiping is easier and during presentations or reviewing, it does help. Also, I do have Windows 8 installed on my desktop pc and even though I don’t have a “touch screen”, I do however, use my Ipad to remote in to it and it sure is sweet to be able to “touch” the screen and scroll through things quickly.  Even my Windows 8 ultrabook with touch screen is sweet to remote into my desktop and I still am able to use the touch screen.

I feel the mac would benefit greatly with this technology. Enable the technology and allow the people to choose where they want to apply it.

Speaking of which… the Ipad does have mouse support, but it is disabled by Apple. You have to jailbreak it in order to use it. So it seems odd Apple doesn’t want people to use a mouse on a pad or touch on a laptop or desktop!


Why does it have to be abandon the keyboard for a touchscreen?  Think out of the box folks.  You can have both worlds.  I’d like a touchscreen for simple tasks or quick updates, and be able to attach (even virtually) a real keyboard for when I have to leave comments for people who aren’t using both sides of their brains.  Touch screen does not need to mean no physical keyboard.


I think that touchscreen might suit some people better than others better than mouse/ keyboard. The next innovation needs to be making it easy to switch between controls (as opposed to opening system preferences).

And, as a cheaper alternative for people who feel they only need keyboard and mouse/ touchscreen, or do not need voice control, there should be a version of mac available that has only the one.

I personally love controlling a desktop or laptop from the mouse and keyboard. I actually find the keyboard on iOS positively annoying. (Although that problem might be partially remedied on a bigger screen.)

Log in to comment (TMO, Twitter or Facebook) or Register for a TMO account