The QWERTY keyboard is absurd to behold in 2016. In the era of seamless touch-screen phones, it’s a collection of more than 100 keys, each its own letter or symbol, as large as a loaf of bread.
So when Apple announced new 13-inch and 15-inch Macbook Pros (starting at $1,800 and $2,400, available now), featuring a new touch-screen strip called the Touch Bar, it seemed like a no-brainer innovation. It replaces the line of function keys (F1-12), and it has all sorts of neat tricks. You can arrange the buttons anyway you like, and apps can create their own custom collection of buttons that sit right above your keyboard. Photos can appear there, too. Emoji! And Final Cut Pro can place the entire timeline of the video you're editing for you to skim through with your finger. Neat!
At first glance, Apple has replaced a highly underused part of the keyboard with flexible, context-specific buttons. But there’s a big catch. Namely: They’re not real buttons. They’re virtual buttons. So they can’t be used mindlessly through touch typing. In fact, you have to look down from your screen to your keyboard to use it.
Remember a time before you learned to type, and you’d hunt and peck each key? That’s how Apple’s reps appeared on stage to debut the technology, looking from the screen down to their hands. Just as you can’t use your iPhone without looking at it, so too does it look more or less impossible to simply touch the Touch Bar.
Considering that this is the Macbook Pro, it’s hard to imagine Pro users being happy with this development. This is a professional crowd that wants more processing power and screen size to run intensive graphics applications—and crucial to those applications are reliable controls. Any Final Cut Pro or Photoshop master has memorized countless keystroke combinations specifically so his eyes never need leave the canvas of the screen. Wonky? Maybe. But that’s the advantage of having 100-plus hard keys, always sitting there in the same place. So like a virtuoso piano player, a video editor can pull off amazing feats, blindingly fast, with just a little bit of muscle memory. It’s why, for trimming videos and adjusting photos, even the beloved mouse or trackpad can feel slow.
"I don’t know if you know how much fun I’m having," Bradee Evans, experience design manager for Adobe Photoshop, said dryly on stage, as her fingers twisted in silent curses to demonstrate Photoshop, one hand on the Touch Bar, one hand on the Trackpad, doing some sort of color picker adjustment that was hard to make out. In that moment, I heard the cry of every creative everywhere trying to use this silly thing in earnest in front of a client.
Theoretically, you might be able to set the Touch Bar to always have the same buttons—assuming you can lock down the controls even across apps that have access to them. If so, it might help the muscle memory aspect, but it defeats any point of having flexible buttons in the first place. Looking at the Touch Bar, I understand why there are rumors that Apple is actually working on another type of keyboard, in which the keys are made of e-ink, allowing you to remap and label hard buttons instead of a strip of virtual ones. I can’t help but think that would be more useful for everyone—to leave memorizable hard buttons intact but leverage the customization and clarity of digital UI to make their hidden functions very clear.
Because ultimately, what single thing is the Touch Bar doing that couldn’t simply be placed into a regular toolbar, right on the screen? You know, just like it is today?