Touchscreen or No Touchscreen, That is the Question!

on November 2, 2016

A lot has already been written about Apple’s Touch Bar for the MacBook Pro and how Apple should have just gone all in and actually added a touchscreen. I hinted on the day of the event that the Touch Bar could actually end up being more impactful than a touch screen and I would like to explain why.

Windows Touch Screens Were a Response to Mobile

I think it is important to look at why we have touch screens in the Windows camp.

Touch screens on Windows were not the result of a platform need. When we started to see hybrid devices running Windows, we were still on Windows 8, which was not optimized for touch. Nor were touch screens the result of an innovation aimed at changing the way we worked and interacted with content.

We got touch screens because Windows as a platform was trying to catch up to mobile.

With very little opportunity for growth in smartphones, and iPad at the high-end and cheap Android tablets at the low-end impacting PC sales, Windows PC makers wanted to fight back by adding the one function the world seemed never to get enough of. By adding touch to PCs, vendors were hoping to shift the downward trend in PC sales while decelerating tablet growth.

Then there was Surface. Microsoft started Surface because what vendors were releasing at the time was failing to compete with tablets. Consumers were not interested in buying a new PC and enterprises were still not sure they wanted to invest in the premium that touch was bringing to the new machines. Surely productivity did not need touch!

Not just about the hardware

Even Surface did not hit a home run the first time around. While it was the best hardware Windows had to offer at the time, the first iteration of Surface running Windows 8 was a less than optimal experience when using touch. The obsession of competing with the iPad was also giving way to confused products like Surface RT.

Fast forward to today and you have Surface Pro 4 running on Windows 10, offering a full computing experience in a versatile form factor with an OS that runs well with using both touch and keyboard.

Looking at hardware alone, however, is not enough to understand how far a device can go when it comes to bridging PCs and tablets. Apps have been key in tablets. So much so that the market has been clearly split in two: a high-end that is dominated by iPad, where there are over one million dedicated apps, and a low-end market where Android tablets reign supreme mainly as content consumption screens.

Windows based 2-in-1s, Surface included, suffer from the lack of touch-first apps that would help move the needle in adoption and, most of all, with engagement and loyalty. It is for this reason that seeing Microsoft invest in first party apps is so refreshing. Microsoft is delivering value and hopefully showing the potential to developers even with both apps and new devices such as the Surface Dial. In an interview with Business Insiders, VP of Microsoft Devices, Panos Panay said something I could not agree more with: “The entire ecosystem benefits when we create new categories and experiences that bring together the best of hardware and software.” 

Meanwhile, across the fence, the Mac OS store has not captured developers in the same way the iOS Store has. The prospect of being able to reach hundreds of millions vs. tens of millions of users has kept a lot of developers focusing on iPhone and iPad.

Adding touch support for macOS Sierra might have left users not much better off than they were before. I assume developing for the Touch Bar is much easier than designing a brand new app for Sierra optimized for touch, which ultimately would result in a better experience for the user.

The “I need a keyboard” argument

Clearly, Apple did not just do the Touch Bar because it was easier to develop for. Apple continues to maintain that vertical touch is not the right approach. Many disagree because the extensive use of touch is getting us more and more often to reach out to touch our screens. Yet, when we touch our screens, we generally want to scroll or select. We really do not want to do complex things which begs the question, why can’t we do it on the trackpad we have on our keyboard? We can discuss this point till the cows come home and we will find pros and cons on both sides.

So let’s look at this point a little differently. There are two main reasons why someone buys a MacBook Pro today: OS and the keyboard. Rightly or wrongly, many people still think iOS is not a “full OS” – another point we can discuss till the cows come home. But the keyboard is key.

If the keyboard is so important for these users, it seems fitting Apple focused on making that experience better. In a recent interview for CNET, Jony Ive said:

“Our starting point, from the design team’s point of view, was recognizing the value with both input methodologies. But also there are so many inputs from a traditional keyboard that are buried a couple of layers in…So our point of departure was to see if there was a way of designing a new input that really could be the best of both of those different worlds. To be able to have something that was contextually specific and adaptable, and also something that was mechanical and fixed, because there’s truly value in also having a predictable and complete set of fixed input mechanisms.”

Taking touch and contextualizing it to the keyboard to make gestures, steps, and functions more natural, immediate,and precise makes a lot of sense to me. As often with Apple, you get what you asked for but not in the form you thought you wanted it.

What Does This Mean for the Future?

For Apple, it means it is serving two different audiences that think of computing in different ways. Apple will do so for as long as it will take for MacBook users to be convinced the iPad Pro and iOS 10 represent the next computing platform.

For Microsoft, it is about focusing on the larger and longer term shift that will see Mixed Reality play a big role in the way we interact with devices, the way we do business, and the way we learn. Microsoft is making sure it is shaping its own path rather than finding itself blindsided and left to scramble as it did with mobile.