Why the MacBook’s Pro’s Touch Bar Matters

How many of you remember the role macros played in the early days of the PC? Macros are basically shortcuts to set up an often used spreadsheet or to add a set of database formats that would be employed for repetitive data input. These were very important during the days when Microsoft’s DOS ruled the PC world. Even today, programmers use macros all the time and power users still create macros for use in various types of apps where they are still supported. However, most users don’t even know these shortcuts exists or, if they do, consider them too difficult to find and use.

Then Apple introduced the Mac with its GUI. This, and the next generation of graphical user interfaces, made navigating through apps much easier. Also, these GUIs introduced an updated version of cut and paste that, in many, ways allowed a person to do similar things macros did when it came to interjecting what, in binary code, is just mathematical equations used over and over within an app of some type.

The first time I saw and played with the Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pros, the concept of the macros of the past popped into mind. Like many who read this column who are power users, we all know the value of creating macros and applying them to our apps to speed up a particular business process. What Apple has done through the Touch Bar is basically deliver this kind of functionality and gives the power of macros to the masses.

Another way to look at this is to look back on Apple’s influence on UIs in the past. With the Mac, they introduced the graphical UI and the mouse. This advanced the user interface of man-to-machine dramatically. With the iPhone and the iPad, they introduced touch, something that is now mainstream in UIs for smartphones and tablets and even PCs and laptops. But Apple’s philosophy on touch does not extend to laptops and iMacs for one key reason. Jobs always believed, right or wrong, that, when your hands were on the keyboard, the best position for input was via a keyboard and mouse. He felt the motion to take the hand from the keyboard and move it to the screen as part of navigation was unnatural. Although adding a keyboard to the iPad breaks with this view, this is more a function of the iPad’s design and many of us who use iPads with keyboards would love a mouse to use with it. An interesting side note to this comes with Microsoft’s Surface tablet. Most of my friends who use it with a keyboard also carry a mouse as they don’t like using their fingers as the touch input is not as precise as one can get with a mouse.

The Touch bar is an important evolution of Apple’s contribution to user interface design. It brings the functions of power user macros to the general user by demystifying the concept of shortcuts for repetitive tasks and adds easy to use and fast access to all types of functions within applications that will support it. This is why the Touch Bar matters. Once people start using it, this will be viewed as a logical next step in UIs for laptops and we will want this on other Apple laptops and desktops as well.

This will be especially true as the software community embraces this new feature and uses Apple’s APIs for the Touch Bar in their own applications. At the Apple event, they showed us the tip of the iceberg for its use on their own applications and ones from early partners like Adobe. But Microsoft plans to support the Touch Bar APIs in all of their Mac applications and, by early next year, we should see thousands of macOS apps supporting it. This gives Mac users a new way to speed up navigation and access within apps on a portable computer and enhance the laptop experience significantly.

As for the new MacBook Pro’s design, I believe it will be a big hit for Apple’s high-end customers and the entry product, that still has the older function keys, will be targeted as a replacement for the MacBook Air, especially in the enterprise. I have played with this model for about four days now and can see this as a great replacement for the Air.

I am concerned with the new MacBook Pros pricing but, to be fair, if this meets the needs of their pro customers, it will still sell well. However, if Apple’s new Touch Bar is the next evolution of Apple’s contribution to mobile user interface design, I suspect the Touch Bar will eventually be on all laptops Apple brings to market over time and, if history is our guide, the prices of these MacBook Pros will also go down in next generation models.

I realize there will be naysayers who will be skeptical about the role the Touch Bar plays in the future. But if there is one thing I have learned over the 35 years of covering Apple it is that, when they put a lot of thought and detail into user interfaces, it is best to take note. That is why I believe the Touch Bar not only matters but it and the special chip they use to power it will have more of an industry impact than most can see right now.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

30 thoughts on “Why the MacBook’s Pro’s Touch Bar Matters”

  1. “cut and paste that, in many, ways allowed a person to do similar things
    macros did when it came to interjecting what, in binary code, is just
    mathematical equations used over and over within an app of some type.”

    Except that cut and paste never evolved past the most primitive level. I can copy one and only one thing at a time. If I want to paste in two things, I have to copy, paste, then copy the second thing and paste again. The concept of a pinboard containing multiple copied things and the ability to paste in any one of several different copied things was never incorporated into the OS on Mac or on Windows. And that’s a pity.

    “I suspect the Touch Bar will eventually be on all laptops Apple brings to market over time”

    And on every desktop keyboard. This is going to come to the Imac and to the standalone keyboards apple sells. They’re not going to discontinue the old style keyboards right away because the touchscreen strip adds quite a significant cost to what was a very low cost item. But it’s going to become the standard for all Apple keyboards going forward. Which I will never buy because even their desktop keyboards these days are crappy laptop keyboards in a shiny case (you can take my old school tactile mechanical keyboard away from my cold dead fingers).

    1. “‘I suspect the Touch Bar will eventually be on all laptops Apple brings to market over time’

      And on every desktop keyboard. This is going to come to the Imac and to the standalone keyboards apple sells.”

      Not doing this right out of the gate is what is going to slow adoption by developers.

      Joe

      1. “Not doing this right out of the gate is what is going to slow adoption by developers.”

        If the next rev of the Imac (this coming spring, by all reports) doesn’t have a touch strip instead of function keys, I will be extremely surprised. And they will then start selling touch strip enhanced standalone keyboards, since those are just imac keyboards in a separate box.

          1. …because 4 general purpose ports, each of which can be anything, are better than a dozen specialised ports.

          2. That was said half in jest, but they have gone dongle happy. I guess having dongle capability is better than not at all, but right now you would need up to 4 dongles.

            Someone else said they took out the startup chime to make it thinner…

          3. Here’s the thing, though. Just like in audio, dongles, or adaptors as most people call them, are a way of life. The promise of a unified port for computers is always at the mercy of the speed of technological change. Today the promise is USB-C/Thunderbolt. As soon as the peripheral world catches up, it will be a different standard. Absolutely superior, but absolutely in need of dongles. Again.

            But who does this affect and how? It affects users who will have to spend money to address the added complexity and external adaptability until their peripherals can be replaced with native ports. And it affects the supplier who now has a simpler device they can sell and saves money.

            Dongles, for whatever the promise of the new port/protocol, are not a benefit to the consumer. They are a benefit to the hardware OEM. Our life gets more complex. Their life gets simpler.

            Joe

  2. The only problem I see is that past UI accomplishments were available pretty much across an entire product line. Now with the touch bar and the possibility of the Airpods, they are limiting the reach of any of their any UI improvements, effectively creating a car maker’s branding, some things you get on Chevys, more on Buick, the most on Cadillacs. I think this flies in the face of their history and does not bode well for their future.

    But that’s just my opinion.
    Joe

  3. The Touch bar is an important evolution of Apple’s contribution to user interface design. It brings the functions of power user macros to the general user by demystifying the concept of shortcuts for repetitive tasks and adds easy to use and fast access to all types of functions within applications that will support it.

    Are we still talking about the MacBook Pro? I thought the general user machine was the MacBook? Or does the Pro designation mean nothing more than expensive?

    I suspect the Touch Bar will eventually be on all laptops Apple brings to market over time

    Because what every professional developer/photographer/writer needs is to take ignore learned muscle memory for using a keyboard, and now take her/his eyes off the screen and look down to see which contextual key needs to be touched?

      1. As long as they continue to make it the way _I_ like it, it’s all good. When they stop is when I’ll buy something else.

        Joe

    1. “I thought the general user machine was the MacBook?”

      Once long ago, Apple’s pro/non pro designation meant what it said for both desktops and laptops. Since then, it continues to mean what it says for desktops (the mac pro is an expensive beast of a machine, only useful if you really *need* tons of cores, buffered memory, or tons of GPU compute power), but has ceased to mean what it says for the laptop line. On laptops, pro now mostly means “has some extra features missing on the non-pro laptops”

  4. Amid all the Touchbar hype, I think one thing that has been overlooked is the larger touchpad. A larger touchpad paves the way for even more precise pixel manipulation which would allow touchscreen like gestures but without your hand obstructing the view. Yes, that’s not available right now but it’s something I fully expect from Apple, with pen touchpad input no less, down the line. An iPad Pro without the visual obstruction and smudged screen.

  5. There is an irony that the touch bar is currently restricted to the higher priced “pro” laptops. Those pro/power users already know how the F-keys map out, especially if they’ve done the mapping. Because the pro user regularly, daily interacts with their software. They know it inside and out. Everything is muscle memory or ingrained association at this point. Having the touch bar be a screen likely offers little benefit and probably would slow them down having to look at/for it.

    I would think this would be a more useful boon to the non-pro or non-power user who doesn’t regularly interact with the F-keys. Maybe the “prosumer” at most who may use pro software but only occasionally. But probably not much for the pro users.

    Joe

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