What it is: The latest rumor claims Apple will drop physical buttons on the Apple Watch in favor of a taptic engine instead.
In the old days of the Apple trackpad, you had to physically press down to give a command. This meant that the trackpad contained physical elements that would move under pressure. However, the latest Apple trackpad never moves at all. Each time yo press on it, a taptic engine gives you tactile feedback that fools your mind into thinking you pressed down when you really didn’t. In this way, the trackpad doesn’t contain any moving parts yet behaves as if it does. This makes the trackpad more reliable than a mechanical version.
This same principle may soon become part of the Apple Watch. Right now, the Apple Watch contains two buttons on the side. By pressing this button, you can give commands to the Apple Watch. The problem with such physical buttons is that they’re mechanical (and thus prone to failure) and include moving parts that must move but must also be water resistant. By creating a completely solid surface, Apple could make the Apple Watch far more water resistant and use its taptic engine to mimic touch.
The taptic engine is one of those incredible inventions that most people don’t even know about because their devices still work exactly the way they expect. Essentially, the taptic engine is invisible to most users because they still get the benefits of a mechanical solution with the advantages of a non-mechanical solution. No moving parts and less gaps for dust and water to get in. If Apple can mimic trackpad and button pushes with a taptic engine, it only makes sense that they’ll try using the taptic engine for keyboards as well.
Right now, typing on the glass surface of the iPad is still uncomfortable for people. Apple’s long term goal is to use the taptic engine to mimic the feel of a physical keyboard on a sheet of glass. This will allow the iPad to do away with an external keyboard and allow the Macintosh to use a similar taptic engine for its separate keyboard that can also double as a virtual keyboard.
The virtual keyboard, pioneered by the iPhone, is the future. Virtual keyboards can change based on what you’re doing to optimize your current task. Physical keyboards can never do this.
Watch for the future with taptic engines in Apple product. When the Apple Watch gets a taptic engine, look for the iPad to get one eventually as well. When that happens, you’ll finally be able to kiss your physical keyboard good-bye.