Steve Jobs Was Right: Touchscreen Laptops Suck

Tech Features Macbook Pro
Steve Jobs Was Right: Touchscreen Laptops Suck

Now that there’s some time between us and the big MacBook Pro announcements from a few weeks ago, it’s time to look back at what Apple is really trying to do with its laptop lineup.

Most of the complaints about the MacBook Pro have centered around Apple’s choice of naming schemes. The company has been upsetting its professional and creative market for years now, putting off updates to its higher-end products in favor of cheaper, lighter, consumer devices. With all that being said, there’s plenty of reason for certain people to be upset with Apple. The MacBook Pro is not a legit “Pro” product, so don’t be fooled by the marketing.

However, barring naming conventions, Apple doing something very right with the MacBook Pro.

Back in 2010, Apple CEO Steve Jobs was doing a presentation on its refresh of the MacBook Pros, not unlike the one we watched just a few weeks ago. In it, he describes why Apple wasn’t going to make a touchscreen laptop anytime soon. At the time (and still today), it was the next big thing in laptops.

“We’ve done tons of user testing on this,” says Jobs. “and it turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical. It gives great demo. But after a short period of time, you start to fatigue. After an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off. It doesn’t work. It’s ergonomically terrible. Touch surface want to be horizontal.”

Despite Jobs’ strong argument against touchscreen laptops back in 2010, today they are everywhere you look. In fact, in 2012 Windows redesigned its entire platform around the idea of every screen being touch-enabled. Even Chromebooks and desktops have touchscreens. Even though most of those attempts have been a complete failure (looking at you Windows 8), the desire for us to interact with our devices through touch has never been higher. But laptop manufacturers haven’t even tried to fix this problem. The solution has been just to throw a touchscreen on its laptop and call it good.

I’ve used all kinds of these touchscreen laptops—and none of them have ever convinced me that they were made with touch in mind. Something like a Surface Book or Surface Pro 4 have tablet modes, where the touch interaction makes a bit more sense, but in the upright position it’s quite nearly useless. So what’s the solution?

At the time, the only answer Apple had to offer was the multitouch touchpad. It had gestures, and could interact with the content of the OS in interesting ways, but they were never quite as intuitive as using something like an iPhone—and it certainly wasn’t as flashy as what its competitors were offering. Years and years went by, and Apple stubbornly stuck its guns about the issue.

But six years later with its newest update to the MacBook Pro lineup, Apple is finally giving its answer to the problem: the Touch Bar. By removing the function keys and replacing it with a small strip of touchscreen display, Apple has brought some significant touch capabilities to its laptops, while still keeping that touch surface in the horizontal position.

The Touch Bar changes depending on what application you are currently using. So when you are in Finder, it’ll give you just a few basic options, along with the Esc key and volume control. Nothing big. But when you are in something like Photoshop, Apple demonstrated a whole assortment of tools and options that are way more intuitive to use with touch such as live brush control.

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The Touch Bar is also an answer to the problem of connecting the MacBook to the iPhone. Why does using two computing products from the same company feel like completely different worlds? Will the two ever truly becoming one seamless experience? The Touch Bar is Apple’s answer to that question: No. At least not in the near future.

Instead, it is merely offering some of the iPhone’s design language and interfacing to MacBook users, to hopefully make for a less jarring experience between going back and forth between the two products. But no, the MacBook and the iPhone will not become one experience anytime soon.

And maybe that’s okay. After all, the things you want to pull out a laptop for these days are increasingly specific. Something you want a keyboard for. Something you want intense multitasking for. Something you need serious control and raw power for. Those are processes and functions that are entirely separate from the kinds of things you want to accomplish daily on your smartphone and require a few different set of controls.

The MacBook Pro’s answer to the problem isn’t clean and simple—in fact, it even feels a little convoluted and forced at first glance. However, it comes from a philosophy and understanding of ergonomics that is entirely true. So while the MacBook Pro may have gotten it wrong in terms of specs and naming conventions, there’s no question in my mind that it’s on point about touchscreens. Hopefully this will reopen a new discussion about touchscreens that all laptop manufacturers can offer answers to.

Because in the end, there’s no doubt in my mind that Steve Jobs was right about this one. And I have a feeling he’d have given the Touch Bar a stamp of approval.

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