A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.
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.
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 graphical user interface. This, and the next generation of GUIs, 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.
Another way to look at this is to look back on Apple’s influence on UIs in the past. With the Mac, Apple introduced the graphical UI and the mouse. This advanced the user interface of man-to-machine dramatically. With the iPhone and the iPad, the company 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 that 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 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 because 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 it 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, the company showed us the tip of the iceberg for use on its own applications and ones from early partners like Adobe. But Microsoft plans to support the Touch Bar APIs in all of its 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 enhances 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, which 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 Cupertino puts 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 that it and the special chip Apple uses to power it will have more of an industry impact than most can see right now.
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. 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. Reach him @Bajarin.