What it is: Apple recently announced the Touch Bar and critics are failing to acknowledge the future.
Back in 1984 when Apple introduced the Macintosh that sported a graphical user interface and a mouse, computer pundit John Dvorak criticized the mouse by stating, “The Macintosh uses an experimental pointing device called a ‘mouse’. There is no evidence that people want to use these things.”
When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, John Dvorak said, “If [Apple] is smart it will call the iPhone a ‘reference design’ and pass it to some suckers to build with someone else’s marketing budget. Then it can wash its hands of any marketplace failures. It should do that immediately before it’s too late.”
When Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, John Dvorak said, “The Apple iPad is not going to be the company’s next runaway best seller.”
Yet in hindsight, nearly everyone can agree that the mouse was a major new input device for computers that still exists to this day, the iPhone has defined the smartphone market, and the iPad has defined the tablet market. How could critics fail to miss innovation when it appeared right before their eyes?
The answer is easy. Any time there’s any type of innovation, critics will always miss the point. Critics complained about abolishing child labor, the introduction of the car, and the loss of slide rulers. Yet if we had listened to these critics, progress in the world should have been halted centuries ago because nothing innovative has ever been produced since the 14th century.
Now that Apple has introduced the Touch Bar to replace the useless row of function keys, critics are complaining that it’s useless as well. Matt Rosoff wrote in Business Insider that Apple should have just made a touch screen for the Macintosh like Microsoft did with Windows. One argument for touch screens that Matt makes is that “Touchscreen computers are also useful in other ways. You can reach out to move windows around, zoom in, swipe through different windows, and so on.”
Now ask yourself, how often do you move windows around on a screen using a touch screen? When you have multiple windows open on the screen, do you reach out and drag a window around using your finger or do you use a mouse or trackpad instead? Do you resize a window using your finger or a mouse/trackpad?
Generally speaking, it’s easy to tap commands and manipulate items using your finger on a smartphone or tablet. With a computer, a touch screen can be more intuitive for scrolling or swiping between windows, but not so much for moving a window around. To move a window on the screen, it’s often faster and easier to use a mouse or trackpad rather than reach out your arm to touch a screen, especially on desktop computer monitors that are often situated farther away from your hands than a laptop.
Touch screens make perfect sense when they’re close to you such as a smartphone or tablet. Touch screens even work occasionally for laptops, but few people will give up a mouse or trackpad to rely entirely on touch screens. Touch screens are far less convenient when working with a desktop computer where you have to reach further to touch and manipulate the screen. Even worse, touch screens do nothing to eliminate the uselessness of function keys.
The Touch Bar replaces these useless function keys and offers a general purpose, customizable touch panel for offering additional controls to manipulate the screen data. By offering custom commands, the Touch Bar can be infinitely more versatile than any fixed row of function keys could ever be.
Matt Rosoff criticizes the Touch Bar because he says, “[Apple] thinks users will want to interrupt their flow to look down and touch a narrow strip running along the top of the keyboard, instead of touching the beautiful massive display they’re already looking at as they type.”
The point Matt misses is that the Touch Bar is meant to be an extension of the keyboard, not an extension of the screen itself. You don’t have to look at the Touch Bar if you don’t want to. The Touch Bar is there if you want it and it’s always changing to offer you shortcuts to commonly used commands you might want to choose right now.
The Touch Bar is far more convenient than memorizing complicated keystroke combinations (and needing to look down at the keyboard to do so). Matt thinks touch screens are far more useful than the Touch Bar, but why?
A touch screen lets you duplicate tasks normally performed with a mouse or trackpad. Is it easier or faster to use the touch screen than the mouse or trackpad? In some cases, yes such as scrolling. In some cases, no such as moving a window or other object precisely on the screen.
The Touch Bar doesn’t duplicate existing input devices but offers a shortcut alternative. Rather than memorize complex keystroke combinations or go through multiple pull-down menus, you can speed up your work by using the Touch Bar instead.
The main difference between the two is that the Touch Bar offers shortcuts to make choosing commands faster but touch screens offer just a different way to perform the exact same tasks.
To move a window on the screen with your finger and you must point at it, slide your finger around. To move a window on the screen with the mouse/trackpad, you must point at it and slide the mouse or your finger across a trackpad. Touch screens make choosing commands different but require the exact same number of steps to do so. As a result, touch screens don’t offer shortcuts but just another way of doing the same task.
The Touch Bar offers shortcuts and that’s what makes it so useful.
The real test of any type of innovation is how long it lasts. The big Segway craze never took off, yet people are still using a mouse (from the Macintosh era of 1984) to this day. That’s because a mouse is useful but a Segway is not as useful.
Touch screens aren’t going away because they’re crucial for smartphones and tablets, but not so crucial for desktop or laptop PCs. The Touch Bar is going to be standard equipment for the Macintosh because the top row of function keys are useless. Expect Apple to release separate keyboards with a Touch Bar for use with the iMac and Mac mini. From now on, every Macintosh will have a Touch Bar on its keyboard.
We already know that Apple won’t adopt the touch screen for the Macintosh. The real question is whether PC manufacturers will adopt the Touch Bar for PC keyboards in the future. If not, they’ll be stuck with an obsolete row of function keys, making it glaringly obvious that the function keys are an antique that have long since served their purpose.