What it is: The rumored MacBook Pro supposedly eliminates the top row of function keys and replaces them with a virtual row of keys.
If you look at early smartphones like the Blackberry, you’ll see that half of the phone is taken up by a physical keyboard. Such a physical keyboard is fine when you need to type, but when you want to look at the screen, the physical keyboard takes up space so you can only view a much smaller screen for no good reason.
That’s why Apple introduced the touch screen on the iPhone so it could display a virtual keyboard that could adapt to different purposes and languages. One huge problem with today’s devices from computer keyboards to TV remote controls is that they require a dedicated button for every possible function. If you want to add additional functions, you have to use an unwieldy mix of keystroke combinations like pressing the Alt key at the same time as pressing the F3 key.
Physical buttons are obsolete. That’s why the iPhone dumped them and the iPad carried on that tradition. Now it appears that the next MacBook Pro laptop will dump the function keys at the top of the keyboard and replace them with a virtual keyboard instead.
Back in the old days, function keys served a purpose because they were often the fastest way to give commands to a program. Then programs started to get unwieldy when they offered multiple function keystrokes such as Shift+F7, Control+F7, and Alt+F7 in addition to just pressing F7.
When computers adopted graphical user interfaces, function keys became like wisdom teeth; still around but rarely needed or used. That’s why it makes sense that Apple’s latest Macbook Pro keyboard will dump the function keys altogether and replace it with a virtual keyboard on top.
This will allow a program to display different types of dedicated keys at the top of the keyboard. If you’re using a spreadsheet, you might want dedicated formula keys. If you’re using a word processor, you might want dedicated text formatting keys. The idea of putting a virtual keyboard at the top of a physical keyboard is inevitable. Eventually it will make sense to replace the physical keyboard altogether and replace it with a virtual one just like the one that appears on an iPad.
Of course, some people prefer a physical keyboard, but that’s only for the keys they need to use most often. For versatility and flexibility, virtual keyboards are far better than physical keyboards. Most likely Apple will keep the main keyboard as a physical keyboard for years, and gradually ease additional functionality into its virtual keyboard. Eventually people will become used to virtual keyboards instead of physical keyboards, and then they can switch to virtual keyboards instead.
That’s why Apple has also experimented with virtual keyboards that offer haptic feedback that essentially gives you the best of both physical and virtual keyboards. Like a physical keyboard, haptic feedback gives you physical feedback as if you were typing on a physical key. With a virtual keyboard, you can change the keys to match the application you’re using.
Virtual keyboards are coming. On the next MacBook Pro, they’ll be simply an accessory but that accessory is going to become common for all Macintosh keyboards from now on. That means the rest of the PC industry will follow along until physical rows of function keys will disappear for good.
Function keys are no longer needed so it’s time to replace them with a row of virtual keys instead. You’re going to see virtual keyboards on computers sooner than you might think.