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With Touchbar, Apple Is Grasping At Straws (Opinion)

At its MacBook Pro event today, Apple spent the lion’s share of the presentation espousing the magical and revolutionary Touch Bar. It is what it sounds like: a glass bar running across the top of the MacBook Pro’s keyboard that has touch capabilities. It’s a feature no one asked for, no one needs, and possibly, no one will use.

What’s Good

To be fair to Apple here, there are some aspects of the Touch Bar that people will want. It cleanly adds TouchID to the laptop, placing the functionality right where the power button is located. As iPhone users have long discovered, TouchID enables quick and secure access to the device, and it’s smart of Apple to place it somewhere that is both unobtrusive and intuitive.

The ability to switch between users so easily, with the tap of a button, is a nice touch as well.

The Touch Bar is not some second-rate feature, either. It’s a Retina display with ten-point multitouch. It is also true that some people may find it useful in some applications, but as we’ve seen with touch displays on PCs, people tend to use the capability only so often and only in certain circumstances.

Apple sees the Touch Bar as some revolutionary input tool, which it is not.

What’s Bad

In its presentation, Apple ribbed the mouse and keyboard as ancient technology, positioning the Touch Bar as the answer for those aged input methods. Oddly, the company is a little bit right; when it debuted the iPhone, it did revolutionize input by developing incredible touch capabilities for the device. But the Touch Bar is just not that compelling. It’s now almost 10-year-old technology that the company has co-opted and crammed into a befuddling form factor.

It’s a small strip that looks to be about the same height as a key cap. Unlike a key cap, though, there is no tactile feedback to be had, so you have to look at what you’re touching. Ironically, the ability to fully and dynamically customize the Touch Bar’s icons prevents users from relying on any sort of muscle memory either.

The placement at the top of the keyboard area and just below the display is somewhat problematic. You’ll have to reach up to tap anything, which may break your typing flow. (To be fair, and as Apple pointed out, this is where the function keys usually reside on a keyboard, so many users are accustomed to that reach.)

Furthermore, there’s a reason why the mouse and keyboard have remained the standard input method for computing for decades: They work extremely well, virtually all software (save for mobile apps) are designed to work with them, and they allow for a great deal of precision.

Apple demoed several applications that can use the Touch Bar, including photo and video editing software. However, if you’ve ever looked over the shoulder of a professional video editor, you’ll see them make copious, alacritous use of keyboard shortcuts. (It’s actually quite a thing to see.) Why would someone bother with mouse, keyboard, and Touch Bar input in such professional applications?

If Apple wanted to feature touch in a more compelling way, it should have done what many PC makers have and built the MacBook Pro with a rotating hinge and baked ten-point touch into the entire display.

There’s That Hubris Again

Sometimes, Apple just can’t help itself. Such was the case with the 2015 MacBook that eliminated all ports (even a power port) save for a single USB Type-C port.

However, in the (second) Steve Jobs era, the company had multiple mega-hits, and for the most part, the accolades Apple received during that time were well-deserved.

The iPhone, for example, was a world-changing device; it perfected everything that tech companies were trying to accomplish on mobile devices. Quickly, Google and its numerous smartphone partners copied it wholesale, and within a few years, smartphones that cost as little as $50 were in the hands of people across the globe, including in countries where that one item served as a family’s sole computing device.

Windows-based laptops could hardly compete with Apple’s laptops during that stretch, in terms of quality and design. I know many people who bought a MacBook and were still happily using it (after a hardware upgrade here and there) six or even eight years later.

Arguably, you could credit Apple’s beautiful, reliable machines with pushing the entire laptop computing market forward. PC makers started (and continue) to ape various MacBook designs (and even colors!). Users demanded better design and higher quality on Windows-based PCs and — we got it.

But Apple has shown little in the way of innovation in recent years. It’s not just the lost “sizzle,” it’s that most of Apple’s advancements have been merely iterative. It is at this intersection of its post-Steve Jobs era that Apple has misunderstood its identity.

Since When Is Great Hardware Not Enough?

Apple still thinks of itself as a great innovator, but it’s not any longer. Instead, it’s become something almost as good, and arguably better: a company that creates excellent hardware, generation after generation.

Since when is that not enough?

Apple has found itself in the unenviable position of trying to uphold its reputation for sexy, flashy, gasp-worthy gear. It still half expects its events to be the blockbusters they once were. Many consumers expect the same. In trying to maintain that image, Apple comes off as hollow. Throughout the MacBook Pro event, Phil Schiller, Apple’s SVP of Worldwide Marketing, kept dropping little offhand nuggets like “Isn’t that amazing?” with such a lack of conviction that it seemed he was using them as essentially verbal pauses, instead of “um” or “uh.”

Apple needs to adjust expectations, both internally and externally, at least until it has something truly exceptional to show the world. The Touch Bar demos onstage looked awkward, and they overshadowed the fact that the new MacBook Pro looks like a superb piece of hardware. It’s even thinner than previous versions and has compelling I/O, and (the top-end version) rocks a Core i7 (Skylake) chip, AMD Radeon Pro 460 (4GB, Polaris), and 2TB of PCIe SSD storage.

Instead of highlighting its excellent engineering prowess with the new MacBook Pro, Apple stepped on its own toes with Touch Bar, a feature that has, at best, a marginal and questionable reason for existence. These are not the tactics of an innovation giant; it's a desperation play.