Opinion: The problem with Apple reportedly killing the MacBook Pro Touch Bar

Ming-Chi Kuo, a reliable supply chain analyst for TF International Securities, predicts a bold new class of MacBook Pros this year with MagSafe charging and I/O ports that won’t require dongles. What Kuo doesn’t forecast is a future for the Touch Bar, the strip of touchscreen panel Apple added to the MacBook Pro in 2016. Love or hate the Touch Bar, that’s a bad thing.

A major investment

When the Touch Bar first debuted on the MacBook Pro, Jason Snell and John Gruber correctly argued that the investment in a brand new interface on the Mac countered the notion that the Mac was a dead platform.

“For people who say Apple doesn’t care about the Mac, they built this whole new bit of hardware, and then they updated all these Mac apps to support it. That was a lot of work,” Snell declared.

“There’s the hardware engineering work of actually putting an embedded iOS device into the keyboard with this system-on-a-chip and having a way that it can interface with the Intel side,” Gruber replied.

“You’ve got this little ARM computer running on your keyboard, and it communicates with the Intel side. One of the things that the iOS device on the Touch Bar doesn’t have is a GPU. So the Intel side does the GPU rendering and has to go back, but it’s all done securely and there’s a whole bunch of electrical engineering going on there and you’d never know it. It’s 60 FPS just like iOS and it’s instantaneous touch.

“So there’s the physical hardware engineering of that, and then the second level is the Mac programming side where all of these apps are updated. Whether they got it right or wrong, none of them seemed half-assed. They all seem like a lot of thought went into them. All of these apps got updated with Touch Bar support which is a lot of work. Then in between those two, there’s the Xcode side where the people who work on the APIs and Xcode itself had to make it where Mac developers have APIs and a simulator so they can test it on machines that don’t have Touch Bars. So an awful lot of work went into this and I completely agree.

“To me, it’s example number one of whatever else is going on with the Macs, and some of the machines that have gone way too long without being updated, it’s clear that Apple is invested in the Mac. I really think that Touch Bar is proof of it.”

Now the Touch Bar appears to be dead, and the Mac couldn’t be more alive.

A static interface

The problem isn’t that the Touch Bar was perfect and now it’s going away. It’s that the Touch Bar virtually never changed despite being presented as something dynamic.

Apple did address one of the initial complaints about the Touch Bar in 2019. The 16-inch MacBook Pro replaced the virtual escape key with a physical key (and a slightly narrower touch panel).

At the time, Apple’s Phil Schiller explained it this way:

“There is a fairly large number of customers who use the Touch Bar and see great benefit in some of its features, but there were also some complaints. If I were to rank the complaints, No. 1 was customers who like a physical Escape key. It was just a hard adaptation for a lot of people.

We decided that rather than just remove the Touch Bar and lose the benefits some people get, we could instead add the Escape key.”

That’s not to say that minds don’t change, and Phil Schiller has since semi-retired.

Other desired improvements could include haptic feedback, sharper visuals, adjusted placement to avoid accidental taps, and perhaps even an increased height on 16-inch MacBooks that have much more space. Instead, we expect Touch Bar to only exist on the last four years of MacBook Pros, and its demise is being celebrated.

There has also never been a macOS update that introduces new Touch Bar capabilities as a flagship feature. The interface launched with customization in apps like Safari and Mail, and apps like Logic and Final Cut Pro make good use of the Touch Bar, but Apple has never pushed Touch Bar customization further.

You can’t even toggle between light and dark mode on the Mac with the Touch Bar without BetterTouchTool or Automator Actions. An appearance toggle would certainly be included if the feature was introduced before Touch Bar.

No future

Even a Touch Bar that saw regular enhancements with macOS updates and MacBook Pro upgrades would not be preferred by all Mac users. A build-to-order version without a Touch Bar would satisfy Mac users who truly prefer function keys.

When Touch Bar debuted, I compared the utility of the Touch Bar to physical function keys — most of which I never use — and Touch Bar still wins for me. Today, I’m an M1 MacBook Air user because I rank the lack of a fan over the inclusion of the Touch Bar, but I would opt for a MacBook Air with Touch Bar hands-down.

My issue with the Touch Bar in 2021 isn’t that it’s no longer better than a static row of function keys. It’s that Apple shipped the Touch Bar then never touched it again.

The Touch Bar is considered just OK to lackluster four years later because it’s bizarrely still a 1.0 product.

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