When will We see a Touch-Enabled Mac?

I never wanted a touch screen on my notebook. In fact in 2012, when Intel and Microsoft convinced PC manufacturers (who were staring down the existential threat of cheap Android tablets) to add touch (and substantial cost) to their Windows 8 notebooks, I thought it was a bad idea. And it was.

Those early products weren’t very good. The touch accuracy was terrible, the OS integration was flaky, and the app support was non-existent. But over the course of the next four years, the industry quietly worked out the kinks. Now, in 2016, I look down and realize three of the four notebooks I use regularly have touch. And somewhere along the line, I started using it. Furthermore, unless I’m docked at my desk using a monitor, I use touch all the time, primarily when scrolling through Web pages or documents. When I use that one non-touch notebook — a Macbook Air — I’m constantly reminded the feature is missing.

Much has been written lately about Apple’s aging Mac lineup, so I won’t belabor the point. However, it’s worth noting that, when Apple disappoints its Mac customers, while it may not risk much in terms of the bottom line, it does risk shaking the faith of the company’s most vocal and long-term customers. Those fans are clearly frustrated if the last few quarters of slumping Mac shipments are any indication. The rumor mill is pointing to an imminent refresh, at least of the Macbook Pro. However, while it looks like the new notebook will have a touch-enabled, programmable bar above the keyboard, there’s no indication Apple is any closer to adding an actual touch screen to the Mac.

I find Apple’s unwillingness to add touch to the Mac both frustrating and somewhat noble. But I can’t help thinking back to how long the company resisted customers’ requests for a larger screen iPhone. Some people even jumped ship to Android just to move beyond the iPhone’s 4″ display. Eventually Apple acquiesced and, with its large-sized iPhone 6 lineup, it won back many defectors and drove shipments to levels the likes of which it will forever try to match.

Now many will point to Apple’s continued insistence that, for many people, an iPad is a more ideal personal computer than a notebook. And obviously, the iPad has touch. Others will note that, unlike the vocal demand for a larger-screened iPhone, very few people are publicly asking for touch on the Mac. I happen to think for many long-time Mac-only users, the lack of touch isn’t an issue because non-touch Macs are all they’ve ever used. But for those of us who move between Windows and the Mac, the omission is becoming glaring. It seems obvious that, at some point, the next-generation of potential Mac users—raised exclusively on touch screens—will find the lack of touch on the Mac unacceptable.

A More Fundamental Issue?

Apple may well have some highly logical, institutional, user behavior-driven, or design-focused reasons for leaving touch off the Mac. Or maybe Tim Cook just doesn’t care for it. But what if touch, and more broadly the Mac in general, have simply fallen victim to the design and management constraints of a company with an ever-expanding lineup of products both announced and in development? With executives focused on wearables, augmented reality, a car, numerous new services, iPads, and—oh yeah—a small iPhone business, perhaps there’s little time left in the day to deal with processor updates for the Mac mini, let alone the idea of adding touch to the Mac.

Ben Thompson has thoroughly discussed the benefits of Apple’s functional organization on his blog. He also put forth the theory earlier this year that what makes Apple good at devices may fundamentally hamper its ability to be good at iterating on services. But what if the company’s current organizational structure is also beginning to limit its ability to consistently rev great hardware? Is it more likely Apple executives made a conscious decision not to refresh the Mac Pro for what is closing in on 1,000 days or have they just been too busy to deal with it in a meaningful way? At Apple, is it better or worse to let a device grow absurdly old, or to push a minor upgrade devoid of deeper product introspection?

In the end, I bring up the subject of touch because, as noted, it took the broader PC industry several years to get it right. Apple’s vertical integration suggest it would likely get the OS and hardware closer to correct right out of the gate. However, there would still be a substantial lag before most Mac software caught up.

Maybe it’s true Apple’s devotion to the idea that the iPad is the best touch-based Apple computer for most people precludes it from adding touch to the Mac. Maybe they just don’t want to deal with the associated challenges when the payoff seems hard to quantify. But couldn’t the same be said of a feature such as 3D Touch on the iPhone?

As a Mac user who spends an equal if not greater amount of time in a touch-based Windows world, I’d sure like to see touch added to the Mac at some time in the future. At this point, it’s simply no longer amusing when I absent-mindedly tap on my Macbook Air’s screen.

Published by

Tom Mainelli

Tom Mainelli has covered the technology industry since 1995. He manages IDC's Devices and Displays group, which covers a broad range of hardware categories including PCs, tablets, smartphones, thin clients, displays, and wearables. He works closely with tech companies, industry contacts, and other analysts to provide in-depth insight and analysis on the always-evolving market of endpoint devices and their related services. In addition to overseeing the collection of historical shipment data and the forecasting of shipment trends in cooperation with IDC's Tracker organization, he also heads up numerous primary research initiatives at IDC. Chief among them is the fielding and analysis of IDC's influential, multi-country Consumer and Commercial PC, Tablet, and Smartphone Buyer Surveys. Mainelli is also driving new research at IDC around the technologies of augmented and virtual reality.

20 thoughts on “When will We see a Touch-Enabled Mac?”

  1. Same here: I don’t have touchscreens on my desktops or laptops, yet I find myself regularly reaching for their screens. Not to the point of buying one of the few desktop touchscreen, or of suffering their compromises (I think they still *have* to be glary not matte)

    I think touchscreens are only part of the issue too. I also want xtop apps to be more mobile-like. Scratch that, I want my mobile apps on my xtops, and I want that enough that I have an Android VM on my PCs. So the issue goes both ways: I want my xtops touch-enabled, a bit, and that requires touchscreens; and I want my Mobile apps to run well on xtops, a lot, and that requires better awareness of desktop/laptop setups, esp. mouse/touchpad/touchmouse handling, and hopefully someday a “Windroid” that isn’t a VM, same as on ChromeOS.

    Not sure what the outlook for that is on the Apple side. Are Obj-C, Swift, and the rest of the toolchain CPU-independent ?

    1. I believe that the Apple developer tool chain can easily target different CPUs. Furthermore, last time I checked, Apple is making an effort to move at least some of their iOS APIs to macOS. It should become easier over time to port iOS apps to macOS, and for simple apps, it might even become possible to target both with a common code-base. Of course this is just speculation, but I wanted to draw attention to the fact that Apple has many options when it comes to combining elements of iOS and macOS.

      Regarding whether Macs should be touch enabled, first of all, I think the author should ignore simple habits. It’s very easy for human beings to adjust simple habits depending on your environment, and I don’t think it’s something that justifies Apple changing its strategy. Instead, I believe you should focus on what real benefits a touch interface brings to a desktop experience, and how many developers will actually make use of it. In fact even on iOS, very few applications make use of multitouch other than simple zooming, which Mac’s trackpad handles quite well. I agree that making mobile apps work on desktops is much more interesting than touch enabled PC screens.

      1. Here’s what I think are the best reasons for converging Mobile and xtops:

        – consistency and user skills. It’s not what tool you’re using, it’s what you’re doing. Why should photo editing on an xtop be a completely different experience, requiring different apps and a different skill set (at least re: UI) than on a tablet ?
        – vanishing HW differences. We used to have phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops. Now we have phablets, tablets with keyboards, convertibles and foldables PCs that are stand-ins half for tablets, half for xtops, dockable phones tablets and laptops, desktops with a built-in touchscreens (some 24″ AIOs, some tablet-sized)… Artificially segregating devices to Mobile or Legacy ecosysems/use cases doesn’t jibe with the hardware any more than it jibes with the usage scenarios.
        – UI abstraction progress. Modern ecosystems and dev kits already support a wide range of UI situations (phone, small tablet, large tablet)… I’m not buying that supporting “desktop mode” has to compromise the other scenarios in any way. Once your UIs are abstracted from the app engine, adding a 4th or 5th UI isn’t earth shattering, and has no impact on the others. There might be some functionality that’s lost/gained when using a multitouch touchpad instead of a touchscreen, but how is that different from what is lost/gained when ForceTouch is or isn’t present ?
        – Win/Metro proves it’s doable. It has plenty of issues (lack of apps, lack of attention to details, incompatibilities from 7 to 8 to 10), but the core concept is not one of them. No one is saying the UI sucks at its core, nor that the OS irredeemably lacks features (or the possibility of features ^^).

        It’s like saying an SUV can’t be an urban vehicle, or a pizza can’t have fruit on it.

  2. I have had an iPad since the first one launched in 2010. Currently I have an iPhone 6 and iPad Pro. Each of the other three family members in the house have an iPad and an iPhone. We have two Macs — a MacBook Air, and a 27″ iMac that we share among us.

    I have never, ever, felt any urge to reach over and touch a computer screen. Never.

    Most of the time, we are using the iPad or iPhone. The screen are filthy with fingers prints. You wipe the screen and a few minutes later it’s dirty again. That’s the number one reason we consider these personal devices.

    I do not want a touch screen Mac. I can’t imagine using a 27″ iMac covered in fingers smear. I guess we would need a stack of screen cleaners on the desk next to the box of tissues.

    1. I’ve seen people who never drive, never use train and airplane. It is ok to never touch computer screen.

    1. Likely this question was already asked on Apple’s internal meetings. They analyzed market for these devices and declined that idea.

  3. I really think the better question is when will Apple add pointer control to iOS/iPad. It’s a lot easier to retrofit pointer use to touch software than touch to pointer software.

    An iPad Pro is 90% of the way to being a good laptop. The one last missing piece is pointer control that doesn’t require touching the screen when you are using it as a laptop.

    I do also think this is really the answer to all the ARM based laptop and touch based laptop questions.

    iOS gets pointers, not MacOS gets touch/ARM.

  4. I think Apple believes the future is mobile.

    Which means that the sooner all of the software used on their devices gets rethought and rebuilt for mobile, the better off they will be.

    Microsoft cannot get vendors to write software for Surface. So, in desperation, they have taken what is more or less a laptop (with the weight balance wrong) and crafted on some multitouch on top of standard Windows. This gets them some software, but to what purpose? Surface is both a crummy tablet and a crummy laptop. And there is zero pressure on their software vendors to rethink anything for “mobile”.

    Apple is forcing the issue. If you want to be on the iPad, you need to rethink and rewrite your software.

    If they’re right about the future being mobile, this gets Apple there much faster.

  5. Some applications need a large touchscreen with multitouch to be used effectively. Hauptwerk and Apple’s own Logic Pro come to mind. Third party touchscreen solutions are not optimal.

  6. Apple product advantage isn’t about spec list. It’s about providing best experience to the user. I don’t think Apple would put touch screen on Mac. The MacOS’ UI isn’t suitable for touch. If you need touch, use iPad since it’s made for the best touch experience. If you need pointing, use Mac since it’s made for the best pointing experience. It’s why Apple gives us Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad for Mac, instead of touch screen.

  7. “I use touch all the time, primarily when scrolling through Web pages or documents.”

    I too use touch all the time on my Mac. I use it for pointing, selecting, moving, cutting, copying, pasting, right clicking, and of course scrolling web pages and documents. Still, I wouldn’t want touch on my screen.

    1. Except iPod, iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch didn’t exist in that century. Nor did their Mac App, iOS App, Music, Video or eBook stores.

      90% of Apple product lines were created later then 2000.

      I do wish they would sell a real “pro” Mac that is compatible with top of the line GPUs for the engineers, scientists, software developers and game players for whom personal computing still means pushing the metal?

  8. He did specify laptop though. When close on the lap it is easy to hold the screen in your hands which would lend itself to thumb scrolling.

  9. I have an Air and a Surface Pro 3 and about the only time I use touch on the Surface is to end a Skype call (and that’s more often than not on my desktop monitor). I would probably touch the screen more if it didn’t leave fingerprints on it… unless Apple can solve that I don’t really see a huge need for touch on the glass on a new Mac

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