Clint on Mobile

How will Apple touch-enable MacBooks?

I’m convinced that my future MacBook Pro will be as thin as an iPad, be touch enabled, let me run Mac apps (Lightroom, Premiere Pro, Picasa, Filezilla), in addition to mobile apps on iTunes (Yelp, Foursquare, Flipboard, BusinessWeek magazine, etc.).

Clinton Stark
11.26.2012 | View Comments

MacBook Pro – begging for a little of that Human Touch.

It’s only a matter of when and how. When will Apple touch-enable its MacBooks? And — more important — how will it set about merging the new touch-based world with traditional laptop computing?

No doubt, the plan is already in place and in full motion, at least deep within Apple HQ in Cupertino.

After spending a few weeks testing various Windows 8 gear, most notably sleek new ultrabooks from the likes of Acer, Samsung and Sony, I came away convinced of a few things. First, for all its detractors, the “Modern” user interface that Microsoft is banking on is intriguing and feels like a compelling – though definitely at times unpolished — view into our PC-less future where tablets, smartphones, laptops morph together into smartly designed go-anywhere, uber devices. Second, in 2012 touching a screen (no matter the size or device) has become second nature. After spending so much time swiping and touching screens on Windows 8 ultrabooks, regardless of how many times I reminded myself that the trackpad was the only way, I kept reaching to tap the screen on my MacBook Pro (2010). The result? A smudgy screen, and another Homer moment. It’s not because I don’t value a keyboard and mouse/trackpad; in fact, there’s no way I could function without a great keyboard (MBP or ThinkPad) and pointer (a mouse is mandatory for video editing). But touch, as we know all too well with the iPad and the superb new line of Android-based Nexus tablets, is unbeatably intuitive when it comes to things like photo editing, working with long lists of objects, and surfing the web. The ideal answer, at least how Microsoft conceives it, is to offer consumers the best of both worlds – hence, a myriad of devices (some bizarre contraptions with displays that spin, and flip) that merge the contemporary tablet touch screen with traditional laptop design.

As I spent more time with my MacBook Pro, then the iPad, I began to wonder how exactly Apple was going to approach the challenge of touch-enabling its laptops.

On the one hand Steve Jobs was staunch in his belief that the tablet and the laptop solved different problems.

The iPad is successful largely because it’s a complete re-invention, from the ground up, of the mobile computer based purely on a human interface known as the hand. It wasn’t an aging desktop operating system with a fresh coat of paint and larger icons. It was entirely new. Consequently it required a radically different operating system. Though preceded by the iPhone, the iPad ran iOS, not OS X, Apple’s longstanding and famously user-friendly alternative to Microsoft Windows.

Meanwhile Microsoft appears to believe in unification.

I’m convinced that my future MacBook Pro will be as thin as an iPad, be touch enabled, let me run traditional Mac apps (Lightroom, Premiere Pro, Picasa, Filezilla), in addition to mobile apps on iTunes (Yelp, Foursquare, Flipboard, BusinessWeek magazine, etc.).

Out of Redmond comes a theory that the world would be a better place if the underlying architecture of mobile devices — smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops — were powered by the same operating system. Windows 8 is a step in that direction. It’s important to note that “Windows 8″ is actually not a single OS. Just ask anyone who has tried to install a standard Windows application (say, Adobe Lightroom) onto the Surface tablet. No can do. Windows RT?! What’s that?! Well, it’s sort of Windows, but sort of one that runs only “Modern” apps – but, yes, yes, also Microsoft Office… and though that desktop looks like full Windows 8 (Windows 8 Pro) it’s just there for, well, you know… to navigate files and windows…

Back then to the original question: How will Apple touch-enable MacBooks?

Currently my MacBook Pro runs OS X Snow Leopard. It’s a glorious operating system; runs like a dream, is rock solid, and has never crashed (though apps have required force closes from time to time). My iPad 3 runs iOS 6 and is equally impressive for couch and unwind mode.

In one scenario, Apple simply adds touch functionality to OS X. Engineers would add it to the display and trackpad gestures would then also work on the screen. That’s the easy part. And if Apple wanted to adopt that approach, it could be done in a snap. But the problem, of course, is the user experience (darn that thing). OS X is not designed for fingers. Pulling down menus, navigating folders, and performing everyday work would be near impossible given that actionable targets are designed for the precision of a tiny pointer, not a Cinnabon-certified index finger (though the dock I imagine could work quite well in a touch environment).

A touch-based OS X has dangerous implications, however.

Apple would then — with iOS and a hypothetical OS X Touch — have two touch-based interfaces on its hands. No doubt they’d be destined for a collision course; sort of like the Apple ][ and Mac (pirates!) back in the day. Implications are well known: two roadmaps, two different types of developers to woo, additional marketing costs. Then there’s the potential for consumer confusion – something Apple’s marketing teams have thus far done a superb job of avoiding.

Or, Apple could give iOS a radical makeover. This alternative would see a new, more powerful, more flexible iOS emerge. The new OS could still sport a simplified face for the tablet and smartphone crowd, but offer laptop users the full-on power to run serious productivity apps.

There’s one reason why — if indeed it comes down to one or the other — that iOS would trump OS X in a battle for Apple’s future:

iPhone.

Apple is now a mobile company. No product embodies that image as much as the iPhone. And it sells better than cupcakes, Smurfs and insanity. Tampering with that formula is risky business. Why mess with the hot hand? Rather, Apple would be wiser to use iOS as the backbone for the rest of its products – including MacBooks.

I’m convinced that my future MacBook Pro will be as thin as an iPad, and have a touch cover keyboard, but let me run the full complement of Mac apps I’m accustomed to currently (Lightroom, Premiere Pro, Picasa, Filezilla, etc.), in addition to any of the mobile apps available for the iPad and iPhone on iTunes (Yelp, Foursquare, Flipboard, BusinessWeek magazine, etc.). It will be touch enabled. And it will function as a best-in-class laptop or a best-in-class tablet. Yes, you might even call it the Apple Surface.

Or maybe Apple will stick to Jobs’ original vision and keep the two worlds — tablet and laptop — separate. Surely the concept of product cannibalization is not lost on CEO Tim Cook either.

But that’s an aging world where devices don’t merge. That’s a world where Donkey Sauce exists. That’s a place we don’t want to go.

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Clinton Stark
Clint is based in Silicon Valley and co-founded Stark Insider. A new media venture, the goal was to fill the increasing gap in arts and food & wine coverage. This site has consumed his every fiber. Yet, he still has time to talk Android, praise Pebble, and shoot videos. More: Clint's story...
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