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Nestled conspicuously atop the newest MacBook Pro keyboard, where the function keys used to reside, is the Touch Bar. It’s an OLED touchscreen display with dynamic controls, dials, and buttons that change depending on the app in use. It’s also the closest thing to a concession that fans clamoring for a touchscreen Mac have been able to wring from Apple’s design team.
In a recent interview with CNET, Apple design chief Jony Ive offered his rationale for rejecting touchscreen Macs and explained the choices that drove the design and incorporation of the Touch Bar into Apple’s latest MacBook Pro reboot.
Ive explained that Apple decided “many, many years ago” to eschew touchscreens on Macs, even as Microsoft rushed to bring multi-touch PCs to market. Noting that dramatically differing from the status quo is actually quite easy, but not necessarily valuable, Ive said that his team didn’t believe it was particularly helpful or appropriate to bring multi-touch to the Mac. As he puts it, “We don’t limit ourselves in how we will push — if it’s to a better place. What we won’t do is just do something different that’s no better.”
Instead, Ive and his acolytes toiled on the Touch Bar prototype for over two years. One of the many challenges they faced was coming up with an input methodology that combined the flexibility and contextual specificity of touchscreens with the predictable, complete, and fixed set of inputs that mechanical keyboards offer. Rather than work to transform the entire keyboard, Ive decided that the function bar was a more attractive point of departure.
Even after the team had agreed on the Touch Bar concept, they were faced with the task of integrating it into slimmer and lighter MacBook Pro machines without compromising the final product, which was an entirely new undertaking in itself.
Ive averred in the interview that the Touch Bar “is the beginning of a very interesting direction” for the Mac. Whether or not you’re a fan of the new OLED strip, it’s clear that Apple has decided to tread uncharted waters when it comes to changing how users interact with Macs, especially if the rumors about forthcoming customizable e-ink keyboards are true.