With Touch Bar, Apple Again puts Faith in Third-Party Developers

on October 28, 2016

Apple this week introduced new MacBook Pros and, in addition to bright new screens, fast new processors, and–of course—ever thinner form factors, Apple introduced a new hardware feature called the Touch Bar. It’s a high-quality miniature screen that runs the length of the keyboard, replacing the old F Keys row above the numeric keys. In person, this display looks great and it has a unique coating that makes using it feel super smooth.

As you might expect, Apple’s Mac OS and first-party apps use Touch Bar right away but, if it is going to become a must-have feature worthy of driving Mac buyers to upgrade, third-party developers will also have to embrace it. At launch, Apple already had buy-in from big firms such as Microsoft and Adobe. But the real question is whether the rest of the developer community will follow suit and, if so, how soon?
Sticking to its Guns
I’ve lamented before that, after using a number of touch-enabled Windows notebooks, using a non-touch Mac notebook felt like a step backward. It’s easy to see Apple’s decision to put a small touch screen above the keyboard as a simple, stubborn unwillingness to bend to the larger trends in the PC industry just as it once resisted larger smartphone screens. To its credit, with the Touch Bar, Apple has put together a touch technology its executives clearly believe is a better option than a touch screen.

Apple has long suggested that reaching up to touch the screen of a Mac is unnatural and that it breaks the usage model of the notebook. In theory, I agree touching a notebook screen seems unnatural. But I also know, now that I’ve been doing it for a while, it feels pretty natural to me to reach up to touch the screen to scroll a Web page.

Keeping the Touch Bar on the horizontal axis means, as a user, I’m not reaching for the screen. But it also means I’m looking down from the screen toward the keys to find the specific, custom keys each application serves up on the Touch Bar. I suppose over time you could develop some muscle memory for unique Touch Bar keys you use often, but that seems unlikely.

After the keynote on Thursday, I participated in a deep-dive session and had the chance to spend some time with the new hardware. I can tell you this much: The Touch Bar is addictively enjoyable to use.

It works as you would expect for tasks such as scrolling through pictures and video (fast and fun), changing system settings (precise as physical buttons), and using the calculator (it’s the killer app, seriously, you heard it here first).

But where the Touch Bar really shows promise is with large, complicated apps such as Microsoft Word and Excel, and Adobe Photoshop. These apps tend to have tons of features that get lost in icon-dense ribbons or buried deep in drop-down menus. With Touch Bar, the developer can surface some of these features, making them visible and more easily accessible for the average user. Power users might scoff but, for many people, this level of increased visibility could lead to real productivity gains.

Apple tells me it is very easy for a developer to enable the Touch Bar for their apps and noted that partners appearing on stage this week did so in a very short amount of time. It will be interesting to see if other major Mac software developers do the same in the coming weeks. And perhaps more telling if smaller developers, with more constrained development time and budgets, decide such an update is worthwhile for their users.

Touch ID Impact or 3D Touch Impact?
What’s not clear to me yet is whether the Touch Bar is one of those new features that will instantly resonate with customers and become a part of their daily lives or if it is merely an interesting technology that makes for a great demo but never really takes off in common use. A good example of the first was Apple’s introduction of Touch ID on the iPhone (and available now on the MacBook Pros with Touch Bar). That technology fundamentally changed the way the vast majority of iPhone users interact with their phone every single time they pick it up. An example of the latter is 3D Touch, an interesting technology I often forget is on my phone unless I accidently trigger it. 3D Touch may eventually become an integral part of the iPhone interface but, right now, it doesn’t feel like most people see it that way. It’s too soon to tell which way the Touch Bar will go.

One thing is clear: Apple sees it as a feature some customers will pay to have, as the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar carries a roughly $300 premium over a comparable model without it (Note: The Touch Bar model also has a better CPU). After a brief hands on, the Touch Bar feels to me like an important refinement to a tried-and-true interface. I’m not sure yet if it’s better or worse than a touch screen, but I look forward to testing the hardware in the coming weeks to see how it impacts my usage. And I’ll be watching closely to see which developers embrace the technology and which do not.