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From MacBook Touch Bar to Touch Keyboard: Will Apple ever ditch physical keys?

M2 Macbook Air Starlight Side
M2 Macbook Air Starlight Side (Image credit: Gerald Lynch / iMore)

There's always a new MacBook on the horizon, even after two new ones have just been announced. A recently published Apple patent suggests one of those future MacBooks could borrow something from the product line's past in a potentially game-changing new way. The patent for a "Device having integrated interface system" mentions a feature that sounds a lot like Touch Bar on steroids. If correct, the introduction of the new feature would represent a considerable about-face by the folks at Apple.

The new Apple patent, dated June 21, shows the company could be working on a MacBook with a dual-display and built-in wireless iPhone charger. Among the goodies this possible laptop may include is a "second display (that) may be configured to display an image of a keyboard in a keyboard region of the top case." In other words, the MacBook's physical keyboard could one day get replaced by a digital one.

In 2016, Apple revealed the Touch Bar on select MacBook Pro models. Once considered a "breakthrough interface" by Apple, the Retina-quality multitouch display replaced the traditional row of function keys above the laptop's physical keyboard. With Touch Bar, users could use digital controls that changed as one moved between native- and third-party apps. Although Apple eventually added Touch Bar to its entire MacBook Pro lineup between 2017 and 2020, it never showed the feature much love or offered it software updates. Finally, when the 2021 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro models were announced late last year, Touch Bar was no longer an option.

Many of us loved Touch Bar and were unhappy to see it go. And yet, we accepted it because of all the great features that arrived on the current generation MacBook Pro models, including the recently announced MacBook Air (2022). Today's patent publication and the introduction of another 13-inch MacBook Pro, which still includes a Touch Bar, suggests that Apple hasn't completely shut the door on multitouch on the MacBook lineup.

Touch Bar

Touch Bar (Image credit: Apple)

Until those same 2021 MacBook Pro models were announced, Apple had long ago retired the MagSafe charging port option on its laptops. Today, the popular feature is alive and well on the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros and MacBook Air (2022). Therefore, it's entirely possible Touch Bar could morph into "Touch Keyboard" someday.

I'm not optimistic, however. Bringing online a MacBook keyboard that's entirely digital sounds like a huge undertaking and one that comes with huge risks. As the now-buried butterfly keyboard showed us, MacBook users are demanding and don't like changes, even minor ones, when it comes to keyboards. So a full-on digital keyboard would have to work as promised and not radically change how typing works.

Is that even possible? Touch Bar only replaced a few seldom-used function keys; I can't imagine the uproar that would likely occur if Apple replaced all of the physical keys with a touchscreen display. Besides, who will clean off the smudge marks that will no doubt happen with each digital keyboard?

Patents don't mean much

Apple patents don't necessarily lead to new consumer products. So most likely, its newest one won't see the light of day as an actual product. However, if Apple does have plans for a digital keyboard on Macs, I'm pretty sure we'll see them arrive first for non-Apple devices. Only after a lot of testing would Apple consider releasing a digital keyboard to call its own.

Bryan M Wolfe
Staff Writer

Bryan M. Wolfe has written about technology for over a decade on various websites, including TechRadar, AppAdvice, and many more. Before this, he worked in the technology field across different industries, including healthcare and education. He’s currently iMore’s lead on all things Mac and macOS, although he also loves covering iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Bryan enjoys watching his favorite sports teams, traveling, and driving around his teenage daughter to her latest stage show, audition, or school event in his spare time. He also keeps busy walking his black and white cocker spaniel, Izzy, and trying new coffees and liquid grapes.

3 Comments
  • Never has a story deserved this aphorism more: Betteridge's law of headlines: "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."
  • Well, the article is junk for sure, but in fact ... if they ever get that folding mechanism right, a touch based keyboard is indeed in everyone's future. The only folding device that (literally) makes *any* sense at all from an engineering, product design, or utility standpoint is the giant iPad that when folded becomes a standard sized laptop (with a touch keyboard). I'm not sure if anyone can do it (because glass simply doesn't fold and no one wants plastic), but if the mechanics can be worked out it would be the most popular product in Apple's history.
  • Not for anybody who is a touch typist. I've abandoned Apple's keyboards for my desktop computers. I'm buying/building mechanical keyboards from now on. They are so much better than those lame excuses for keyboards that Apple makes. I would love a MacBook Pro with hotswappable key switches and keycaps. But I imagine a laptop like that would have to be at least 3 times thicker. So no chance. Apple's laptop keyboards are the best since the M1 MacBookPro when it comes to laptop keyboards, but they pale in comparison to a good mechanical keyboard with linear or tactile switches.