It’s about the interface, not the technology

On the face of it, Apple’s event on 27 October 2016 looked its most disappointing ever: with a slew of Macs in desperate need of replacement, all they could come up with was one new model with a tiddly little Touch Bar. Hardly the innovation that we expected, the rich product pipeline promised by Tim Cook.

Compared with the previous day’s launches by Microsoft, it would be easy to dismiss Apple as a spent force in computers. All it seems to care about is propping up its iPhone sales, and the millions of creatives who have so steadfastly supported the Mac over decades have been finally dumped.

I don’t think that is the right reading: in fact, Apple’s tiddly little Touch Bar may well prove the most innovative step that we have seen in computing since the original mouse.

The first clue to what Apple is up to, is the topic with which it opened its event: accessibility. This is not just about enabling access to computers to the relatively small proportion of people with substantial problems, who require special input devices and/or displays. This is about all of us, particularly as we grow older, and it gets harder to press Command-Shift-F2, or even remember what that is a shortcut for.

Many of us now use trackpads, have large wide-colour displays, sophisticated sound systems, and more, but the basic way that we interact with our Macs has changed relatively little since 1984. Without that change, Macs and PCs are going to suffer steadily falling sales until they become specialist tools, just as graphics workstations used to be. Hardware manufacturers have been throwing faster chipsets, heftier GPUs, more memory, and bigger storage at customers year after year, but have had little effect on computer sales.

Microsoft’s way ahead, with Windows 10 and the products which it launched, is manifestly the touchscreen, which Apple sees as being limited to its smaller and highly portable iOS devices, topping out with the larger iPad Pro. The touchscreen makes you move your hands to where you are looking, something which defies human anatomy, as I have pointed out.

Although touchscreens open access to some users over short periods in certain circumstances, by and large they greatly reduce accessibility, whether for those with specific problems, or all of us as we grow older. When your eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be, your neck and back stiffer and more prone to strain, and your shoulders, arms, and hands a bit arthritic, working for any time on a fixed 28″ touchscreen is painful and exhausting.

Apple’s way ahead, not just in its Touch Bar, but in the other input devices which I expect it to launch in the coming months and years, is the exact opposite to Microsoft’s: it takes elements of what might currently be put on the display, and places them under the fingers. When you want to switch drawing tool, instead of having to reach over the display and tap the tool somewhere in the midst of its large surface (on a touchscreen), or use a mouse or trackpad to move the pointer to that location on the screen (current Mac), you simply tap the tool on your Touch Bar.

The Touch Bar is not the ultimate solution, but a step along the road to changing the way that we interact with computers altogether. Turn it into an OLED pad, for example, and you could have an app-specific matrix of tools which would previously have been taking up display space, and require indirect control via the pointer.

There are still plenty of challenges along the way. The technology is largely in place already: the touch of – perhaps serendipitous – genius is having an operating system, watchOS, which is designed for low-power miniature smart displays. I wonder whether this was not part of the goal of the Apple Watch all the way along, and that the watch itself became almost an incidental by-product.

The difficulty with developing innovative input devices is the unpredictability of success. I am sure that Apple could have launched more at its event, but once some had been shown to be lemons, that would have coloured perception of all of them. The MacBook Pro’s tiddly little Touch Bar is a first step, to prove the concept, validate the ergonomics, build experience with app interfaces, and tune the next product for release.

Microsoft will, of course, sell plenty of touchscreen systems to those who seek immediate gratification rather than accessibility. But in five or ten years time, I think that we’ll be using very different OLED pads derived from the Touch Bar, and wondering why anyone bothered with large touchscreen displays.