product thoughts

How Apple could navigate its touchy Touch Bar dilemma

Jump ahead to the proposal

In 2016, Apple debuted the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro. It’s a strip of touch-enabled screen meant to add functionality to the user’s active app. It exists where the function keys used to reside, and it’s something that developers go out of their way in order to support.

The Touch Bar is a pretty polarizing feature, and it’s one I think has a bunch of potential for the Mac – just not as-is.

Some people love it! Some people are ambivalent toward it, with many saying “I ignore it, except for this one thing…” like seeing slides in Keynote or having quick access to emoji. The people that love it generally have multiple apps they use regularly that utilize it well. This post is not trying to say those opinions are invalid in any way.

Many don’t like it. For me: as a writer who hates distractions, I am opposed to things flickering… especially on the keyboard. I switch between apps a lot, and the main value proposition of the Touch Bar (that it offers app-specific controls) is negated by the fact that it causes flickering as it changes UIs, a deal-breaker for me. Next: as a writer, I don’t appreciate autocomplete suggestions as I’m typing – it sounds counter-intuitive but such suggestions override my own train of thought. Lastly, I use the buttons for volume, play/pause forward/back, screen brightness, and it’s just faster (and more mindless) to hit those when they are physical buttons.

A way forward for Apple:

As stated above: some users love the Touch Bar and some developers have put time into supporting it. Is there a gentle path forward that doesn’t involve shipping models with the physical Touch Bar?

I propose a line of Macbooks with:

  1. a more vertical aspect ratio (taller than 16×9) for
  2. a touch screen that
  3. displays the Touch Bar in software, along the bottom of the screen (below the dock, with padding between the two), as the default option

This would:

  1. Still support developers and users of the Touch Bar,
  2. Keep the Touch Bar controls close to your fingers,
  3. Not significantly reduce screen real estate (because the aspect ratio changed/improved),
  4. Give Apple an advantage vs other touch-screen PCs, and
  5. Give people the option to disable it.
  6. While still supporting the Touch Bar platform for existing TB users.

It would also allow Apple to ease up on the rigid Human Interface Guidelines for developing for the Touch Bar, which mandate that only buttons/controls can be displayed. I think this stems from it being seen as and extension of the keyboard. Many of us would like to see app-specific information down there in addition to controls. I think it’s telling that nearly half of the top-upvoted Touch Bar projects on Product Hunt break this rigid guideline (that only allows for controls) and are therefore not acceptable in the Mac Store. I ran into this barrier when developing my latest Mac app, and it caused me to drop my plans for it.

I realize that adding touch to macOS would not be trivial and may not be great out of the box, but having apps already supporting an on-display Touch Bar would be a big win in such an effort.