Watch the other hand: Apple’s evolving input devices

Every magician knows how to trick your eyes: distract you into thinking that you’re watching what’s important. While you’re concentrating on that, they can get on with what you’re not meant to see.

Apple worked this same magic sleight of hand with its Watch. With everyone hyping the product, moaning about its formidably expensive high-end models, then trying to guesstimate its sales figures, what we hadn’t noticed was that its hardware and software were intended for a great deal more than that. The Watch wasn’t actually about a watch at all.

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We were all watching the wrist… (Image courtesy of Apple, © 2016 Apple Inc.)

This becomes clear with a close reading of c|net’s revealing interview with Jony Ive by Connie Guglielmo. As usual, we are told just enough to encourage speculation, but not sufficient to let us know what is actually going on.

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…when we should have been keeping tabs on the keyboard. (Image courtesy of Apple, © 2016 Apple Inc.)

Ive tells us that the new MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar is “the beginning of a very interesting direction”, and how Apple had been working with mature hardware and software for this for over two years. So Touch Bar prototypes have been usable since the summer of 2014, almost a year before Apple shipped its first Watch. The “interesting direction” – of which the Touch Bar marks just a beginning – is in haptic-rich input devices such as trackpads. Years ago, Apple rejected the touchscreen, which is currently Microsoft’s darling.

So in the light of Ive’s remarks and the new Touch Bar, we can safely conclude that this is the first of a range of products which will be powered by a new generation of systems on a chip (SoC); the Touch Bar’s T1 SoC is the first in the line, and inevitably the most basic. They may stick with the current bar format, with a display of around 2170 x 60 pixels driven directly by the T1, or they may lay the OLED out as a two-dimensional tablet similar in size and format to the current Magic Trackpad 2.

There are definite virtues in keeping to a bar, which is easier to integrate into a keyboard and much simpler in use. A 2D surface like a trackpad could be much more powerful, but might so easily become too complex to be popular.

It’s also worth noting that the MacBook Pro may be a transitional model in this respect, offering Touch Bar, keyboard, and trackpad. In time it might prove possible to simplify this into just keyboard and Touch Pad, depending on how 2D input surfaces work out in practice.

Integrating either bar or trackpad with a desktop or modular Mac is also a challenge. These days, the peripheral would have to remain wireless, and its main limitation then would appear to be its interval between recharging. A new Touch Pad could have much more capacious batteries than even the larger Watch 2 (334 mAh), but whether they would prove limiting is a delicate decision which can only be made by the market. The current Magic Trackpad 2 contains a 2024 mAh lithium ion battery, which should be good for several days use of a Touch Bar, but a whole Touch Pad would drain that battery more quickly.

Apple has long experience of bringing new input devices to market, and the unpredictability of success. In 1993, it launched the Apple Adjustable Keyboard, which remains for many of us the best keyboard that we have ever used. But it also swallowed large amounts of desk space, particularly if you used it with its detachable palm rests, and never caught on.

In that same year, Apple launched the Newton MessagePad, whose handwriting recognition was superior to any comparable device. Although it persevered for five years trying to convince the public that this was ideal as a ‘personal digital assistant’, the Newton and sibling eMate with its built-in keyboard were disappointing failures.

Ive also made it clear why Apple was not simply going to launch the faster iMacs and minis that so many of us wanted. Simply throwing in faster CPUs and chipsets is not sufficient, particularly when you are starting to develop radically new methods of input, and competing against a rash of touchscreens. New Macs have to do things better; until Apple has something better to offer us, and presumably with its next step along this new road, it doesn’t want to dish out just more of the same.

Some outsiders think that input devices like the Touch Bar have already been tried, and failed. The Register reckons that Lenovo already has sufficient experience to know that, in their 2014 Yoga laptop. As macOS 10.12.1 is the first operating system to incorporate proper support for a Touch Bar, and the latest versions of apps for it are the first to make full use of one, it is highly likely that Lenovo did not do as thorough a job two years ago, and we’re back to comparing Apples with lemons.

Apple’s track record with input systems has some great surprises too. At the moment, the most widely-used input system for text is the on-screen keyboard of the smartphone, which Apple brought so successfully to market in its iPhone. Yet back in the days of the Newton, that had been deemed a failure.

As is so often the case in human interface and input devices, it is not so much what you do, as how you do it, and ensuring that there’s that bit of magic too.