Apple’s elusive design chief Jony Ive has given his strongest hint about what the Mac of the future will look like.
>I would guess that probably two years ago we had a pretty good prototype that wasn’t product specific. It was exploring this idea of larger, haptic-rich trackpads — what you now see as the Touch Bar — combined with a keyboard. It certainly didn’t look particularly well resolved, but it created an environment where you could start to see: Is this as useful, and is this as compelling as we conceptually think it should be?
This was an area of combining touch and display-based inputs with a mechanical keyboard. That was the focus. We unanimously were very compelled by [the Touch Bar] as a direction, based on one using it, and also having the sense this is the beginning of a very interesting direction. But [it] still just marks a beginning.
When asked about touchscreen MacBooks at the end of the interview, Ive said that the team felt the technology didn’t make much sense for practical reasons, but avoided saying more as “that puts me starting to talk about things that we are working on.”
It’s unclear how this future direction will pan out, but Apple clearly feels that Microsoft’s approach of placing a touchscreen on a conventional laptop does not make sense. When Apple released the MacBook Air in 2008, it debuted a multi touch trackpad that allowed users to make iPhone-like gestures without lifting their arms to the screen. That feature was slowly rolled out across the Mac line, and is now considered a standard in the range. In the latest MacBook, the trackpad is twice the size of previous iterations, suggesting the company sees more ways it can improve on the design.
Apple has had some unique ideas for how a touchscreen MacBook might work. Back in 2014, Apple patented a dual screen display that would collect sunlight on one side, and provide a traditional screen on the other. When the MacBook is closed, the solar side could be used as a touchscreen.
Another patent from April proposed a totally flat keyboard that could double up as a touch surface. Instead of a screen, though, micro perforations would light up, depending on the situation, to create new keys with haptic feedback, recreating the feel of a button. This is perhaps closer to Ive’s initial foray into touch-based Macs. Placing the touch surface on the keyboard means users won’t have to lift their hands, or learn a radically different macOS interface. This could also match up with Ive’s cryptic hints about how the Touch Bar is the start of something new.
Nothing is certain, and Apple patents ideas all the time that never get used. But Ive seems keen to stress that the Touch Bar is not the end goal, and the Mac is expanding in a new direction.
Photos via Getty Images / David Paul Morris, Getty Images / Kevork Djansezian