The Touch Bar, the headline feature of Apple’s new MacBook Pro laptops, is a mistake. It is a gimmick, a colorful whiz-bang toy “feature” designed to sell two-thousand dollar computers in Apple Stores. And it shouldn’t be the future of how we interact with macOS.
Apple’s marketing materials claim that it “revolutionizes the keyboard experience” and that it’s a “revolutionary new way to use your Mac.” Outside the reality distortion field, what they have created is an unholy amalgam1 of their (truly revolutionary) multi-touch keyboard and a traditional one. Simple, daily tasks like pausing a song or changing the screen brightness are transformed into a game of hide a seek, the sought after key constantly being moved out from under your fingers, hidden away in submenus accessed through inscrutable glyphs with tiny touch targets. The Touch Bar bastardizes the beauty of the touch interface — the naturalness of directly manipulating what is seen on the screen — by marrying it with the indirection of a keyboard, a device that we’re trained to not look at while we use.
In the rare case that the controls in the Touch Bar are more than visual representations of keyboard shortcuts, they tend to be interactions that are performed less clumsily with the trackpad. The icons themselves are like the shifting sands of the deserts, subject to the whims of the the Mac’s windowing system, making it impossible to commit any Touch Bar action to muscle memory. It is the most infuriating input device I’ve ever used.
If the Touch Bar isn’t the future of interaction on the Mac, what is? In the bad old days, when Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy and saddled with a legacy operating system it was Steve Jobs who rode in and saved the day with NeXTSTEP, a modern OS he had been building at NeXT. Unfortunately for Apple, the go-go operating system building days of the 1980s and 1990s have mostly passed, so the prospect of an outside acquisition showing the way forward is slim. Fortunately for Apple, they’re only a little over a decade removed from creating one of the most successful operating systems of all time.
macOS, despite the new name and fresh coat of paint is legacy software — iOS is now older than macOS was at the time iOS was introduced. It is an incredibly powerful, complex operating system with a lot of accumulated cruft. It has taken it’s particular vision of the traditional GUI as far as it can. If Apple believes in the long-term future of the Mac as a platform, they have to think differently about the underlying software.
Apple executives have spoken on the record multiple times over the past few years about having tried and ultimately dismissed the idea of touchscreen Macs. And with the operating system as it is designed today, it’s not hard to see where they’re coming from. It would be clumsy to interact with the nested menus and small controls of macOS by touch — they were designed for use with a much more precise pointing device, the mouse. But what if it wasn’t?
Apple should replace macOS with a new operating system built from the ground up to be touch-friendly. Not iOS2 with a clamshell keyboard, but something entirely new. An operating system that’s designed to be used with a touchscreen monitor and a physical keyboard. An operating system with the security and power efficiency of iOS, and the power and flexibility of the Mac. An operating system that is built from the ground up to integrate seamlessly with Apple’s cloud services. An operating system for the future of the Mac platform.