Last week saw the much awaited release of a MacBook Pro with a new, hopefully functional, keyboard. It’s a huge relief and I can’t wait for the keyboard to make its way across the whole line.1 As unfortunate a saga as the laptop keyboards have been for Apple, for me the more interesting failure with the latest laptops has been the Touch Bar.
I almost never use the Touch Bar on my MacBook Pro, although I will accidentally trigger a tab switch in Safari or unexpectedly exit a Keynote presentation from time to time. I’m not an aficionado of the physical Escape key so I don’t feel any angst related to the loss of it. And even that has been solved with last week’s announcements. Instead I see the failure of the Touch Bar as one of missed opportunity. I actually do think that easily accessible software changeable buttons in close proximity to my keyboard could be useful. I have had a few moments on my laptop when confirming a dialog with the Touch Bar broke my muscle memory and gave me a glimpse of unexplored possibilities. Herein lies the problem, I don’t use the Touch Bar enough to break muscle memory.
Like most people I know who work in technology companies, I use a laptop. But why? For taking my computer to meetings, and taking it home at night.2 When I am sitting at my desk doing my actual work, my laptop is plugged into an external monitor and I use a wireless keyboard and trackpad. The ergonomics of using the keyboard and trackpad on my laptop while looking at a large external display are non-starters. When I look around my current office or the office of my previous employers every desk was set up in pretty much the same way. You see the problem, as far as the Touch Bar, is concerned; when I am actually working, I’m almost never at my laptop’s keyboard. I would love to know the numbers Apple’s much touted Pro Workflow Team knows regarding how pros use their laptops, because I’m pretty sure I’m far from alone.
The Touch Bar is not a bad idea, but it is a new UI paradigm. It needs to be consistently used in order to be embraced. No professional I know is actually exposed to the Touch Bar outside of in-between moments, like coffee shop working or during meetings, even though most of their computers have one. When the Touch Bar was released I expected that it would only be a matter of months before Apple released an expensive Magic Keyboard with Touch Bar and Touch ID, and was initially shocked, and then perplexed that such a product never appeared. As it stands, Apple seems too stubborn to let it go and simultaneously timid to push it forward. If the Touch Bar was on the keyboard I used all day long I imagine I would find uses for it and it would become ingrained in my workflows.
I could be convinced that a Touch Bar is a tool that is essential for the way I use a computer. However, I think Apple needs to convince itself first and put it in the places that I actually work.
My own MacBook Pro 13” keyboard needs to be repaired due to extra A keystrokes being registered several times a minute. In fact, I’ve installed some open source software to try to ignore extra A keystrokes. It works ok. Just this week I’ve seen a developer who I work with carrying an extra keyboard into conference rooms in order to use his MacBook Pro 15” during meetings. It’s such an inconvenience to be without a computer for a few days during repairs that people go to silly lengths in order to keep using computer components that should just work. ↩
Pro tip. If you can get away with it, don’t take your computer home at night. ↩