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The Touch Bar and Touchscreen Politics

A common theme about Apple is that the critics demand that features from other platforms be copied. You can find a list; it’s easy, because Apple never attempts to compete on the quantity of features but, mostly, on the quality of features. So the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, obviously. Before it arrived, you had BlackBerry and a host of imitators. But the iPhone was closer in concept to a tiny personal computer, dispensing with a physical keyboard in place of a virtual one that essentially matched a traditional layout. So people who found it difficult to take to the unusual layout devised by BlackBerry — and I’m one of them — were able to adapt fairly quickly to the iPhone. Apple made it familiar, thus making smartphones warm and fuzzy to the masses.

That’s why the rest of the mobile handset industry followed up on Apple’s tradition with their copying machines.

When PC makers copied the MacBook Air design, they added another wrinkle, perhaps to be different. They followed up on Microsoft’s original concept for a tablet, which was basically a notebook with a movable touchscreen. All right, they didn’t exactly succeed as big, clunky machines, but making them slimmer and lighter might have helped them catch on somewhat.

Apple’s response was that a personal computer is meant to use standard input devices such as a keyboard, mouse and trackpad. Tablets and smartphones are natively based on touchscreens. The standalone keyboard is optional. To drive the point home, Apple executives said a notebook with a touchscreen that doubles as a tablet is akin to trying to combine a refrigerator with a toaster oven.

The choice to add a Touch Bar has proven to be controversial. To some it might be a cop-out, the result of a political decision not to have a touchscreen. To Apple, it’s a matter of expanding the use of traditional input devices to become more productive. Certainly the demonstrations at the recent Apple media event, where the Late 2016 MacBook Pro was launched, indicated the Touch Bar’s value in helping professionals do complicated work more efficiently. Both Apple’s Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Photoshop were prime examples. The App Store has begun to post recommended MacBook Pro apps with similar support.

Now I gather some people more or less get used to this, but if you don’t have a convertible or 2-in-1 PC notebook, just take a second to raise your hand and touch the screen of your regular notebook a few times, every few seconds, while switching back to the keyboard for text entry and trackpad manipulation. Do you feel that’s a comfortable move, which won’t potentially cause wrist and arm stress over time? Do you feel this is a natural move to which you become accustomed without discomfort?

If you do, well and good. I’ve tried it, and maybe I’m too old to learn new tricks. But I am comfortable with an iPhone or an iPad — although I’m no big fan of the latter. I am comfortable with my vintage MacBook Pro using the traditional input methods. Mixing and matching them doesn’t work for me, I can feel the extra tension in my limbs. True, you can use an iPad with an attachable or add-on keyboard, and it’s all right under some circumstances. But it’s usually just a clumsy workaround to make typing long passages of text easier.

Still, the reviewers have given a mixed reaction to the Touch Bar so far. The New York Times referred to it as a “blank slate,”meaning that time will determine its value. That depends very much on whether the developers for the apps you need to run will provide proper and efficient support. A key is to offer easy access to critical workflows, even if the actual commands are several menus deep. Developers have loads of options here, limited very much by their creativity and responsiveness to the needs of customers.

So if there are ways for you to get more work done faster, more efficiently and with fewer errors using the Touch Bar, it’ll be a success. If it’s just a fancy function key replacement with few operations you care about, it will just be an unneeded expense. What will help is for Apple to add Touch Bar support to a version of the Magic Keyboard, so users of desktop Macs can take advantage of it too. That will go a long way towards encouraging developers to get with the program.

At least the reviews are showing one thing not to be true, concerns about achieving professional performance levels on the MacBook Pro, particularly the 15-inch version. With dedicated AMD Polaris graphics, this machine can drive two 5K displays, each with a single connector. That was no mean trick using DisplayPort 1.2 technology. Obviously most consumers aren’t going to care about 5K displays, but pros do. And having ultrafast SSDs is also going to enhance overall performance. True, the Intel Skylake chips aren’t hugely faster compared to its predecessors — not Apple’s fault obviously — but more powerful graphics and speedier SSDs will make a difference that people who do real work on their Macs will notice.

As to the issue of touchscreens, Apple’s made its move. PC makers have yet to demonstrate that 2-in-1 notebooks are superior from the standpoint of user convenience, comfort and productivity. But such fine details usually aren’t of concern to companies who tout the number of features above their value.