Apple is preparing to launch its new high-end MacBook Pro laptops later this year. It has made a point to prepare consumers and developers for the changes and the benefits of moving to the ARM-based Apple Silicon processor. What a shame that this care and attention was missing when it introduced the now-maligned Touch Bar.
Launched in 2016, the Touch Bar replaced the physical function keys at the top of your MacBook Pro’s keyboard with a long thin and continuous strip across the width of the device. This is the only touchscreen you’ll find under MacOS, and it certainly showed some promise when it debuted. Promises that were never really delivered.
The default options from Apple were context sensitive, but very little to write home about – the ultimate default was to show a serious twelve buttons that carried a number of key UX features such as volume, media playback, screen backlighting, and the app launcher. In other words, the same functions in the same place as the function keys.
Apple prominently displayed the Emoji ‘Keyboard’ that was available in almost every app, as well as how to use the Touch Bar to scrub through audio and video when editing.
So why has the Touch Bar not taken off, and why has it not become a key part of the Mac platform?
One of the biggest issues is developers could never assume that the Touch Bar was there. It was only available on the MacBook Pro. The more popular MacBook Air retained the physical function keys, and Apple never released a Magic Keyboard that included a Touch Bar; thus denying any of the seriously desk-bound Macs the new features.
Any functionality in the Touch Bar had to be replicated through menus, hotkeys, and on the main display. Developers had to work around the Touch Bar, making it an ancillary feature to their applications. As the years passed by, as countless Mac owners upgraded, the opportunity to make the Touch Bar part of Apple’s distinctive offering disappeared.
Simply put, Apple never put its full weight behind the Touch Bar… and the Touch Bar has become a cute thing at the top of your keyboard rather than a necessity. It’s expected to be removed from the new design. Even if the Touch Bar remains part of the new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro design, the problems will remain.
Now compare that with another change Apple has made; the move to ARM-based Apple Silicon.
This was not sprung on consumers or the public, Tim Cook and his team carefully set the scene at WWDC 2020 some 5 months ahead of the first hardware being released. They seeded ARM-based software developer kits so there would be ARM-compiled software when the new laptops launched. And perhaps most importantly Apple ensured that the ARM machines would be as compatible as possible with the older x86 applications.
Much of that success was achieved quietly in the years before the ARM project was launched; the removal of support for older APIs and User Interface kits; the cutting off of 32-bit applications; and the specific requirements of bundled code to the Mac App Store reduced the permutations, guided developers and users to the goal, and ensured a smooth introduction.
Apple was also clear on both the timescale of the switchover (the end of 2022) and the scale (every Mac). Uniformity has been promised and signalled clearly. Everything that didn’t happen with the Touch Bar happened with the move to ARM.
The Touch Bar remains one of the most visible entries in Apple’s ‘Miss’ column, but the lessons of the Touch Bar are clear for all to see.