Making the Mac multitouch. A bit.

MacBook Pro with a cup of coffee and iPhone
MacBook Pro with a cup of coffee and iPhone (Image credit: iMore)

Unlike Microsoft, Apple had a successful touch-first operating system with iOS. Unlike Google, Apple had a successful mouse-and-keyboard-first operating system with macOS. Microsoft had no choice but to spend years in the desert — that desert being Windows 8 — to make Windows into a touch-friendly-ish operating system. Google pivoted rapidly into multitouch with Android and ChromeOS. Apple, though, had to make a choice.

Mac Touch vs. iPad Type

Like Windows, Apple could have spent years of engineering and design resources grafting multitouch onto macOS, churned through several awkward release cycles, and come out the other side with a version of the operating system with targets big enough to jab a finger at.

Alternatively, Apple could spend those years and resources making iOS even better, more capable, and more encompassing.

For years there have been rumors of MacBook and MacBook Air-style clamshells running on ARM and iOS and perhaps that was something Apple flirted with or is still flirting with. In 2015, though, Apple released iOS 9 with significant enhancements for iPad, and followed up with iPad Pro, which added a MacBook-sized screen, smart keyboard connector, and Apple Pencil.

Then 2016 came and went with but a 9.7-inch variant of the Pro and a Safari-specific variant of split-view to show for itself.

There are rumors — there are always rumors — that as soon as next week we might see iOS 11 with drag-and-drop and other long-requested features, as well as a new 10.5-inch version of iPad that'll truly be next generation. But it still won't and should never be a Mac.

The future can't fly if it's tethered to the past. iPad can't be iPad if it's constrained by the preconceptions of Mac.

So, what about the Mac?

Going touch-first native

Apple has thus far maintained, repeatedly, that touch isn't appropriate for the Mac. Yet almost every Windows and Chrome laptop shipping today has a touch screen and so do many desktops.

What's more, the first generation of kids raised on iPad are growing up. They're not touch-immigrants like us older folks. They're touch-native. They expect screens to be like iPhones and iPads. They expect them to respond to touch. And when they don't, there's no consideration given to ergonomics or context — they simply think the screen is broken.

I've never, not once, tried to touch my MacBook screen to interact with the interface. Classic trackpad-and-keyboard computing is hard-wired into my brain. I get borderline angry when my fingers have to leave my iPad Pro keyboard to hit some control I can't otherwise activate.

But I'm of that generation. I've seen kids try to touch my MacBook screen plenty of times. Especially when we're watching or doing something together, all huddled around it.

So, how could Apple reconcile its stated belief that touch is better on trackpads and bars than on screens for the Mac with the reality that user expectation is soon going to run 100% counter to that belief?

The same thing any immovable object does when it encounters an irresistible force: yield.

Multitouch vs. Multitouch gestures

It's possible we'll eventually see a version of iOS running on MacBook-like hardware, or we'll see something that replaces both iOS and macOS on a wide range of hardware, the way OS X replaced the old Mac OS.

And I don't think Apple should waste engineering and design resources on retrofitting a touch layer onto macOS.

What I do think could work, though, is adding a control layer. I realize it's easy to write something when you're not the one who actually has to implement it, but here's the thought:

Give Macs a touch screen that enables gesture navigation. Let people poke, swipe, and pinch the screen, if and when they really want to, the same way they can already on the trackpad.

Flick up a page in Safari. Zoom into a map. Tap to pause or play a movie. That sort of thing.

Out of touch, out of mind

For those that don't want or need it, they never have to use it. Their screens remain as untouched as they do today. For those who expect it, though, it'll work as expected.

Sure, they'll have to learn they can't do everything through the touch on a Mac, but I had to learn I can't do everything through the keyboard on an iPad.

You know what? I lived.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • "...or we'll see something that replaces both iOS and macOS on a wide range of hardware, the way OS X replaced the old Mac OS."
    This. I don't think that iOS and macOS will "merge" as some people have suggested. What will eventually happen Apple will introduce a newer OS that will replace both. It would be one OS that runs on tablets and laptops. Apple will offer more choices then on it's hardware. Maybe, shocking, retire the Mac and the i names for something new. Or just reintroduce a new Mac. Hello Again.
  • As I sit here scrolling with my fingers and reading this article on my Surface Pro, which I just disconnected from its keyboard/trackpad on my way to the kitchen to get a snack, I feel as though I am living in what I imagined to be the future. I didn't have that feeling with MacBook Air this Surface recently replaced. So no Rene, Apple needs to do something serious with touch. Anything else will look like a half baked, questionably implemented idea (see TouchBar).
  • Can you give some sample of what "something serious with touch" would be for you?
  • Blackberry felt the same thing about touch screen smart phones at their zenith and look at what happened to them.... An invincibility complex to the point where you do not feel you need to adapt and stay pace with the rest of the industry is a VERY dangerous notion to have in the technology world.
  • I've grown up and love my Mac but I certainly have on occasion tried to touch the screen to interact with it. With the current device design it isn't a big issue but it does constrain the form factor to traditional desktop and clamshell. Swipe gestures would be nice but I think it might just make things feel worse as we try to push a dialogue button on the screen. I really don't think it would be terribly difficult to use touch on the current MacOS as the vast majority of screen targets are big enough to touch.
  • I have no inclination for touch when using a device as laptop or a desktop. Using it as a tablet I do.
    However, young people today, many from babies, are brought up on touch interfaces, and they are going to expect to use touch. Microsoft is smart, they recognise to get young people hooked on Windows and they'll stay for life. Apple can just add touch to its current MacOS, that you can use with a pen or finger. And maybe have an option so that everything is larger on screen if you want to use your finger. Just do it now. But work on a solution so that the future OS is optimized for it. Apple cannot waste time.
  • I've been using Apple computers since the 70's. I work almost literally all day long on my iMac in Photoshop, Excel, etc. I gave up my laptop five years ago and just use an iPad on the go, currently the 9.7" Pro with Smart Keyboard and Pencil. Since I am a touch typist and use my iPad Pro in "laptop" mode with the keyboard most of the time, this configuration has trained me to jab and swipe at the screen constantly. Now when I sit down at a Mac laptop I instinctively reach toward the screen to do certain tasks, especially pinch to zoom a photo or close a dialog. Others have said it and I agree completely that adding SOME touch features to Mac laptops would be ideal. There is no reason to radically redesign the Mac interface and make it fully touch-centric like iOS, but the ability to pinch zoom a photo and do other basic operations would help unify the user experience across Apple devices.
  • Microsoft has finally done a great job with Windows 10 of striking a balance between touch centric and touch enhanced.
  • Adding any touch will bring fingerprints to the screen - no thanks.
  • the only way a screen i own (touch or not) will be free of fingerprints is if my kids (and wife) are not in the same country as i am. :-)
  • Not having a touchscreen is the BIGGEST reason i haven't considered a macbook of any flavor. I hadn't thought i would use the touchscreen on a laptop since it had not gyroscope, but i find myself using it for scrolling and drawing notations all the time on my windows laptops now. I will not buy any kind of laptop without a touchscreen. that is a deal breaker for me now.
  • There is absolutely no reason for avoiding touch and pen on the Mac - when Apple lovers like Leo Laporte STILL has a Surface Studio on his desk during MacBreak Weekly, you know there is value in being able to scroll, touch a link, circle or highlight an item - touch and pen DO NOT replace the mouse and keyboard, they are just a third/fourth input method for the USER's convenience. Apple does not have to redesign the entire Mac OS UI - that is a ludicrous excuse on their part - as a full time Surface Pro 4 user I'll be honest - the touch experience in Windows 10 still sucks and I never use tablet mode - but it is GREAT for selecting targets and links, scrolling pages, pinch to zoom. I would never use it to select text - my iPad proves that to me in spades that touch is a very poor fine grain interface - I would kill for mouse support in those instances. You are right Rene - make it an input interface add-on and be done with it. Do not wait for a three year cycle of pain to integrate the entire operating system - I know of NO ONE in the Windows environment that would abandon their keyboard and mouse and I believe the same would be true for Mac OS. Next time you are in Starbucks, watch the reaction of your average millennial using their MacBook while they are watching a Windows users poking and scrolling their laptop screen. It is often priceless. Better still, use your connections to suggest Mr. Schiller do that... PS - it would also bring about the biggest single upgrade cycle for Macs in Apple's history (pass that one along to Mr. Cook)...
  • PPS - Apple could proclaim they have "done touch right on the laptop by creating a magical fourth integrated input methodology" and feel good about themselves in the process. My bet it would even result in some old time fogies like myself considering a MacBook Pro for the first time.
  • I'm using my 12" MacBook as I type this. I have *ZERO* interest in a touch screen Mac. I've spent some time learning keyboard shortcuts, and using utilities like TextExpander and Keyboard Maestro to help me streamline my work. I really enjoy using the buttery-smooth trackpad and the gestures for navigation. I have an iPad Air (1) that I've tried using for productivity-type applications, but I find that adding a bluetooth keyboard and swiping the screen just doesn't do it for me. I end up using the iPad mostly for consumption, and when I have to do some work in a pinch, but its not my go-to device when I really need to get something done. Now, I know this is MY preference, and everybody is different. I may change my mind if Apple comes up with an iPad Pro and iOS that truly takes the best features of Mac and iPad and seemlessly blends them in one device. They aren't there yet, IMO, and I'm confident that they'll eventually come up with something. But I don't think it will be on the Mac.
  • I look forward to seeing what the future holds with Apple. I believe they will be forced into developing a mixture of touch & mouse interface. I use my iPad Pro for the majority of my work, with a keyboard case. But there are times I would like the ability to use the trusty old mouse especially for precision. I have a Surface Pro 3 & it has a mixture of them. I find it makes it a very powerful device & you can perform some things on it that you can't on an iPad Pro. iOS is definitely much better at the touch interface & I believe that it should be mainly driven by touch, not by a mouse. Overall, I prefer iOS over any OS, but if it could add mouse support, I probably would never turn my Surface on. Windows 10 is mouse/keyboard based from the foundation, but it has added some great touch abilities. It will eventually perfect more of the touch interface. Lack of touch support on the Mac has definitely been a part of why I've never bought a Mac. Contrary to some, I do find the iPad Pro a productivity device, especially with a keyboard. I used to look at it as only a consumption device. But now, especially that MS Office is available on it, it helped push me over to the iPad & I was willing to sacrifice some of my previous methods of being productive. So, part of what moves the market is how the apps are designed as well. I agree with what has been mentioned about the up and coming generation mainly using touch & that way of doing things will force Apple to incorporate better mouse & keyboard support. Mostly mouse. If there wasn't a market force pushing Apple in this direction, we wouldn't be talking about this here, nor in other places. It is becoming a commonly discussed topic now. Just like at Windows Central they commonly talk about Windows 10 mobile isn't dead yet. Obviously, they have to keep defending what is on life support & is basically dead to the masses. But that's a different topic.
  • Here's a video of OS X running on a Surface Pro complete with multitouch gestures and stylus support. Controlling the interface looks completely natural, could probably use a little optimazation in some places, but usuable. I'd like to see a Apple-made version of this someday.
  • If somebody wants something like this, you can always get the Modbook right now: These guys used to take an actual Apple MacBook Pro and "mod" it to make a tablet-like device (hence the name.) I haven't followed them for quite a while, so I don't know if they still do that. But, this is probably the closest you'll get to an Apple-like experience on something that resembles a Surface right now.