Where are the touch screen Macs?

Fake Imac Touch
Fake Imac Touch (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

The company line is that it's not ergonomic — that having to reach up and across to touch the screen of a Mac to get things done isn't only inefficient but potentially injurious to humans. It's not about having to, though. It's about being able to. Adding multitouch to the Mac doesn't remove the existing keyboard or mouse controls any more than making the Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro removed the taps and swipes.

So, for real, why isn't Apple making any multitouch Macs?

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What Apple keeps saying about touchscreen Macs

There have been 3rd party attempts to make Macs if not multitouch than at least basically touch over the years, including the ModBook, which tore the notebook down and rebuilt it with a digitizer, and various touch-detection overlays for Macs used as kiosks in the hospitality industries. But there's been nothing from Apple. Nothing and more nothing.

Lke I mentioned in the ARM MacBook video, link in the description, Apple is a multibillion dollar company — billion as is money in the bank, not trillion as in market cap, commentor friends! — and can afford to explore, prototype, test, and tweak any and everything bloggers, social media types, and YouTubers can imagine, and often years before we imagine them.

In the case of the multitouch Mac, the company has said just as much over the years.

Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, during Apple's April 2012 financial results call, as transcribed by Macworld:

I think anything can be forced to converge, but the problem is that products are about tradeoffs, and you begin to make tradeoffs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn't please anyone. You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator but y'know, those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user.

Steven Levy, speaking with Apple's Senior Vice President of Marketing, Phil Schiller, for Wired:

From the ergonomic standpoint we have studied this pretty extensively and we believe that on a desktop scenario where you have a fixed keyboard, having to reach up to do touch interfaces is uncomfortable," says Schiller. "iOS from its start has been designed as a multi-touch experience — you don't have the things you have in a mouse-driven interface, like a cursor to move around, or teeny little 'close' boxes that you can't hit with your finger. The Mac OS has been designed from day one for an indirect pointing mechanism. These two worlds are different on purpose, and that's a good thing — we can optimize around the best experience for each and not try to mesh them together into a least-common-denominator experience."

Steven Levy, speaking again with Phil Schiller, this time for Wired in 2016 following the release of the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar instead of a touch screen:

"We think of the whole platform," he says. "If we were to do Multi-Touch on the screen of the notebook, that wouldn't be enough — then the desktop wouldn't work that way." And touch on the desktop, he says, would be a disaster. "Can you imagine a 27-inch iMac where you have to reach over the air to try to touch and do things? That becomes absurd." He also explains that such a move would mean totally redesigning the menu bar for fingers, in a way that would ruin the experience for those using pointer devices like the touch or mouse. "You can't optimize for both," he says. "It's the lowest common denominator thinking."Apple came to this conclusion by testing if touch screens made sense on the Mac. "Our instincts were that it didn't, but, what the heck, we could be wrong—so our teams worked on that for a number of times over the years," says Schiller. "We've absolutely come away with the belief that it isn't the right thing to do. Our instincts were correct."

Shara Tibken and Connie Guglielmo, speaking with Apple's Chief Creative Office, Jony Ive for CNet at the same time:

It's not because Apple can't make a touchscreen Mac. It's because Apple decided a touchscreen on a Mac wasn't "particularly useful," says Ive. And on the MacBook Pro, which keeps getting thinner and lighter, it could be "a burden."

And with Phil Schiller:

Apple says it doesn't have a problem with the Mac and iPad overlapping, since each approaches tasks in a different way. They won't remove the iconic menu bar from the Mac desktop, for instance, just as they'd never add it to the iPad. "It is great to provide two different ways to solve some of the same things, but they also do very unique things that the other doesn't," Schiller says. "Having them separate allows us to explore both, versus trying to force them into one — and only one — model."

Jon Packowski, writing for Buzzfeed following Apple's new Mac Pro tease in April of 2017:

"No," Schiller said when asked if Apple would consider building such a thing. "Touch doesn't even register on the list of things pro users are interested in talking about. They're interested in things like performance and storage and expandability."

Lauren Goode, speaking with Apple's senior Vice President of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi, for Wired in June of 2018, following the announcement of macOS Mojave and UIKit apps for Mac:

When addressing my question about whether iOS apps moving to MacOS is a natural precursor to touchscreen Macs, Federighi told me he's "not into touchscreens" on PCs and doesn't anticipate he ever will be. "We really feel that the ergonomics of using a Mac are that your hands are rested on a surface, and that lifting your arm up to poke a screen is a pretty fatiguing thing to do," he said.Federighi added that he doesn't think the touchscreen laptops out there today—which he referred to as "experiments"—have been compelling. "I don't think we've looked at any of the other guys to date and said, how fast can we get there?"

So, on one hand, when Apple executives say they don't like multitouch Macs, because gorilla arms, it's because they're some of the very few people in the world who've actually used multitouch Macs in the lab. It's not an idea or an abstract to them. It's one of the thousand things they said no to before saying yes to the iPad Pro.

On the other hand, you have touch screen laptops, or laptop-like products from Microsoft, Google, and others that get a lot of attention from tech media and creative pros alike.

But Apple executives are talking about the Mac as it is, with an interface that goes back to the Xerox Park days, to the NeXT days, to the foundations idealized around a mouse an pointer, with tiny touch targets never meant for direct finger manipulation.

The challenge of the touch screen Mac

To bring multitouch to the Mac, Apple would have to redesign macOS and its interface to make fingers a first class citizen when it comes to experience and interaction.

The first problem there is the assertion that making things like the Mac menubar more touch-friendly would force them to be less mouse and pointer friendly. The second is, even if you don't believe a compromise could be reached, the second problem is the time and resources it would take to reach it.

It took Microsoft years to make Windows touch friendly, never mind touch first or even touch equal. Literally years in the desert, through Windows 8, to get to Windows 10. But they had to do it. They absolutely had to. Windows Mobile, Microsoft's original touch-ish-based operating system for mobile, didn't survive content with iOS and absolutely not with Android. Despite frequent reboots and compatibility breaks, through Windows Mobile 6.5, Windows Phone 7 and 8, it just hit a brick wall on phones and was never given a chance on tablets. It inspired a lot of the later, more digitally authentic design of iOS and Android, but it itself never succeeded in the market. So, Microsoft absolutely had to make traditional Windows go touch.

Google, by contrast, is a far younger company and never had a traditional computer business or operating system to worry about. It could buy Android, start work on a BlackBerry-style device, see the iPhone, pivot hard into multitouch, and go all-in from pretty much the start. It could also take Apple's WebKit, make Chrome, fork WebKit, make Blink, and basically make the browser the operating system for a large swath of the increasingly web-based world. And multitouch web browsers have been a thing since Safari on the original iPhone.

Apple has a successful traditional computer business with the Mac and a successful multitouch-first mobile business with iOS. It could abandon the former and go all-in on the latter — some analysts , in the name of focus, repeatedly call on Apple to do just that — but there's no existential threat forcing Apple to do that just to survive the great interface transition of the last decade. It's already survived just fine.

Creative pros, at least some of them, are looking at products like the SurfaceBook and Surface Studio with lust in their hearts. They may be niche, something that Microsoft's modular model makes easier because so many other vendors can fill the mainstream, where only Apple makes the Mac. That can still accrue mindshare, but maybe not enough to compel Apple to act.

Likewise, the first generation of kids raised on iPad are growing up. They're not touch-immigrants like us traditional computer user 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 history — they simply think the screen is broken.

Apple no doubt believe anyone trying touch will rapidly discover it doesn't work on the Mac, compartmentalize the same way they do basketball from soccer rules when it comes to hands and feet on a ball, and just get on with using both the way nature and Apple intended.

But what if they don't? Nobody wants touch on a Mac. Once upon a time, Steve Jobs said nobody wanted video on an iPod. Then we got video iPods. Nobody reads books. Then we got iBooks. If you see a stylus you blew it. Now we have Apple Pencil. Like I said in the MacBook Arm video, for Apple, nothing unannounced exists. And nothing Apple hasn't done is worth doing. Until it is.

The potential solutions to the touch screen Mac

So, lets say regardless of what the Mac market was or is, the Mac market becomes a multitouch market. How could Apple address that?

The iOS Mac

The easiest answer, of course, is to just run iOS on Mac-like hardware. At least at the lower-end. An iOS MacBook is something that, according to rumors, has been in the labs for years. An iOS Mac mini isn't hard to imagine either, especially with Apple getting back into the display business. If Apple does what it previously did, and makes an iMac and stand-alone version of the same display, it could field a really interesting range of multitouch non-Macs that would appeal to iPad Pro users and even those with Surface envy but who also want and value more traditional clamshell, box, and all-in-one form factors. That includes people who find traditional computers off-putting, but also creatives who find multitouch increasingly essential.

And having iOS on the mobile and entry-level end and macOS on high end, each with its own functionality, wouldn't be any more confusing than having iOS on an iPad Pro and macOS on an iMac.

Some people might want real macOS on real multitouch, especially if they want to go from the terminal to the finger and back, but the vast majority of people now and certainly going forward probably really don't. And as iOS gets more and more capable, pushed by the iPad Pro, that'll become more and more true.

And that's another easy answer — as iPad Pro becomes more mature, rather than being the touch screen Mac, it can become the thing that legitimately eliminates the need for a touch screen Mac.

iOS on Mac

A dual-booting device, one that could run iOS in tablet mode and macOS in notebook mode would no doubt be compelling to some. Though the complexity of that idea probably punches every toaster/fridge alarm in Apple's park.

Likewise a MacBook that still doesn't have touch on the screen but has even more touch than the current bar: The entire keyboard gone virtual. What's essentially a macOS display standing up and what's essentially an iPad display — one that can become a full-on Taptic keyboard or any control surface you need any time you need it. One that uses proprioceptive lies to fool your fingers and brains into thinking its real the way the force touch trackpad does today. That's sci-fi that's always getting closer to being sci-fact, but is also probably something traditional Mac users would hate even more than butterfly and dome switches.


The Multitouch Mac

The harder answer is to start adding multitouch to macOS. Harder not just because it would require solving interface problems like the Mac menubar for multitouch, but because of the resources it would take to solve it. Yes, even Apple, with billions of dollars in the bank and a market caps that flirts at a trillion dollars simply can't do everything it wants, not all at once.

The constraint here is engineers. Apple needs engineers and designers to come up with, implement, test, and deploy all the new code and all the new paradigms that would make multitouch Macs a great product. There aren't that many top-flight engineers to begin with. Of the ones that are, not all of them want to work in Cupertino, California, or for Apple instead of a company or startup with greater stock option growth or IPO potential. And competition for the ones who do want to work for bigger companies in the valley, between Apple, Google, and Facebook, is fierce. Even when Apple is the first choice for those engineers, working on macOS may not be. Not when some see it as the past and the upcoming reality OS and autonomous technologies projects as the future.

Even though Apple has some of the best engineers in the world, it doesn't have all of them, and putting the ones it does have on retrofitting multitouch to macOS means those same engineers can't work on other projects, including the next versions of iOS, and the special projects that come after that. Which is a huge opportunity cost.

Just like having those engineers work on performance last year for iOS 12 meant new features, like the rumored new springboard, got pushed to next year.

It's easy for me or anyone in tech media to say "just add touchscreen to the Mac" like all Apple has to do is buy a touch layer and slip it under the glass. But, we don't have to design and engineer the staggering amount of work that would actually have to go into making it all work.

Apple could absolutely do it, but even if Apple could do it much, much faster than Microsoft with Windows 8 and 10, would it be worth losing a year on iOS, two years? While Google is plowing ahead with Android and its next-generation underpinnings, Fuchsia?

The MacBook Beyond

That brings us to an even harder answer, if briefly, because I intend to go deeper into it in a future video: Apple's own next-generation operating system. There have been rumors of rOS, the reality operating system that may one day power Apple Glasses and other products to follow. There have also been rumors of a TitanOS that'll power Apple's autonomous future. Though some of the grandeur aspirations behind that no doubt changed when Apple refocused the project a couple of years ago.

There's a future where iOS and/or macOS simply keep evolving, having old modules like HFS+ swapped out for new ones like APFS, having daemons re-written, frameworks improved, and otherwise, year after year, step by step, becoming what's next.

There's also a future where, rather than merge macOS and iOS or replace macOS with iOS, but replace both with something new. A next NeXT, so to speak. That would be an incalculable amount of work, way more than retrofitting multitouch onto the Mac or adding full keyboard and trackpad support to iOS, but it would also leave Apple with something far more interesting: A new stack, from kernel to interface, that is completely modern and input agnostic. Something that provides local authentication, cloud connection, and simply understands whatever input methods are available to it, from keyboard, to mouse, to multitouch, to the AI and AR future we're racing towards. But, again, more on that soonish…

macOS Touch

Apple could make the Mac a little bit multitouch. Again, I realize it's way easier to say something like that than to be the person in charge of implementing it, but here's the thought:

Give Macs a touch screen that enables gesture navigation. Basically, the same level of functionality the gestures on a Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad currently allow, and let them poke, swipe, and pinch the screen, if and when they really want to.

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

Now, that could be a complete mess. If the Mac supports some gestures, people could easily expect it to support complete, full-on multitouch, and when they find out it doesn't it could seem just as broken as no touch at all.

But it's also possible people are smart and will adapt to the constraints and find it to be exactly what they need.

The Mac Pencil

Another option is adding Apple Pencil support to macOS. The Pencil is as precise an input tool as the mouse or trackpad, and could bring all the great pressure sensitive features from iPad Pro roaring onto the Mac. And, because it's so precise, macOS wouldn't require the kind of finger-friendly overhaul it would to support direct touch.

It wouldn't let you do all the gestures, the swipes, the pinches, the pokes, but it would let you do everything you can do now. Just with Pencil.

And, if Apple did both, gesture support for fingers and Pencil support for pressure and precision, that could lead to some pretty amazing computing experiences from MacBook to iMac.

I mean, at least until the fully multitouch, ARM-based iOS clamshells and all-in-ones appear, right?

Will the Mac ever go multitouch?

That's the amazing thing about the future. It's filled with limitless potential and possibilities. And if you want to be part of it, but don't know where to start, check out Brilliant. It's a great place to start learning the logic and theory behind coding, algorithms, artificial intelligence, and more. Each course is interactive and breaks up complicated concepts into bite-sized chunks to make sure you actually absorb the information, a strategy which I really wish was used by traditional schools.

So hit up brilliant.org/vector and get started today. Thanks brilliant and thanks to all of you for supporting the show.

It could be like netbooks, where Apple ignores the trend, then releases new products like the MacBook Air and iPad that become the trendsetters. But it's hard to see touch going the way of cheap, cramped, computing experiences, and the trends have already been set here. iPads helped set them.

Any year now, Apple could surprise all of us at WWDC and tell us macOS has been living a double life as a fully multitouch operating system for a year or more already and if finally ready to go public. Or that iOS has gotten full mouse and trackpad support and is all dressed up in fancy new clamshell and all-in-one clothes. Or that its new reality OS is a titanic new reality and everything we've worried about in terms of Macs and multitouch was a colossal waste of time in the new, next generation world.

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.