Why Apple Shouldn’t Kill the Touch Bar

Rumor has it the MacBook Pro’s mini OLED screen is on its way out. That’s a shame.

Photo: Agê Barros/Unsplash

Do we recognize innovation when we first see it? I think we can get carried away in the hype and assume something must be innovative, but technology that changes habit isn’t always welcomed as the next big thing.

Take Apple’s Touch Bar. Recent rumors suggest that Apple’s next MacBook Pro update might do away with it, and this has some corners of the internet buzzing with glee.

Introduced almost five years ago, the keyboard-width and single-key-deep OLED display replaced the function keys on the MacBook Pro and thus was seen as a kind of insurrection of the known and accepted.

At the time, I was surprised. Were that many people still relying on function keys? My Microsoft Surface keyboards don’t have function keys, and I’m not missing them. Perhaps the F5 holds some special meaning that escapes me.

The Touch Bar wasn’t a mere digital replacement for the function keys. It’s a programmable screen running, in essence, a watchOS that works with macOS and the apps that run on top of it. It’s remarkably customizable, and because it’s one long, thin screen, it supports gestures for things like scrolling through photos (tiny thumbnails appear in the Touch Bar) and can even support a usable — if ultrashallow — piano.

In my first Touch Bar hands-on, I wrote:

With the Touch Bar, Apple pulls off a nearly perfect double backflip into the world of touch computers (without acknowledging that people would ever want to touch their displays).

Even as Apple built touchscreen phones and tablets, the company has drawn the line with touchscreen laptops. Now that iPadOS and iPad Pro support trackpads and mice, Apple appears to be teetering on the edge of breaking its own rule. However, the Touch Bar already crossed that line in 2016, offering a tiny glimpse into the blended touch productivity world we now find in the iPad.

Maybe that’s why Apple is thinking of removing the Touch Bar, in preparation for a touchscreen Mac. Just think about how much macOS now resembles iPad and iOS. Honestly, I still think that’s unlikely.

And while I think many MacBook Pro users have sought to either ignore or lock the Touch Bar into an old function key format, I believe the fungible-screen platform still has legs. Plus, it was a harbinger of a growing trend in multiscreen laptops.

Just take a look at the new Asus ZenBook Pro Duo 15-inch dual-screen laptop. It has the traditional big screen, and right below it, a half-sized OLED extending from the keyboard. And for the past couple years, Lenovo has been perfecting a laptop with a traditional screen on the inside and an e-ink display on the cover.

Multiple laptop screens are officially a thing. How can Apple pull the plug on Touch Bar now?

Speaking of pulling the plug, the MacBook Pro rumor I am buying into is the reintroduction of the MagSafe charger port. This feature disappeared roughly around the same time as the arrival of the Touch Bar.

As a long time Windows PC and only occasional MacBook user, I used to look longingly at MagSafe, especially when someone would get tangled up in my Windows laptop charging cable and nearly take the whole computer with them.

With MagSafe, a forceful step was always stronger than the magnet, pulling the charger off the MacBook body without taking the computer with it.

Microsoft noticed, and when it introduced the Surface Pro, the company also unveiled the Surface Connect charger, which attaches to the Surface Pro with — you guessed it — magnets.

Apple killed the MagSafe because the single-purpose port didn’t offer as many interface possibilities as a USB-C port. Perhaps Apple has taken notice of the popular Surface line and decided on a reprieve. More likely, this is part of a plan to revive the charging brand, a plan that started with the iPhone 12 line and their new MagSafe chargers.

I wonder if Apple might do a MagSafe port redux but also look at using the iPhone 12 conductive technology to add wireless charging capability to the MacBook Pro base or even the cover. (Then they could use the current Mag Safe chargers.)

In any case, I still see a bright future for the still-innovative Touch Bar and, yes, a revival for the MacBook MagSafe port. In other words, the rumors sound just about half-baked.

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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