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When will we see a touch-enabled Mac?

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A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

I never wanted a touchscreen on my notebook. In fact, in 2012, when Intel and Microsoft convinced PC manufacturers (who were staring down the existential threat of cheap Android tablets) to add touch (and substantial cost) to their Windows 8 notebooks, I thought it was a bad idea. And it was.

Those early products weren’t very good. The touch accuracy was terrible, the OS integration was flaky and the app support was nonexistent. But over the course of the next four years, the industry quietly worked out the kinks. Now, in 2016, I look down and realize that three of the four notebooks I use regularly have touch. And somewhere along the line, I started using it. Furthermore, unless I’m docked at my desk using a monitor, I use touch all the time, primarily when scrolling through web pages or documents. When I use that one non-touch notebook — a MacBook Air — I’m constantly reminded that the feature is missing.

"When Apple disappoints its Mac customers, while it may not risk much in terms of the bottom line, it does risk shaking the faith of the company’s most vocal and long-term customers."

Much has been written lately about Apple’s aging Mac lineup, so I won’t belabor the point. However, it’s worth noting that when Apple disappoints its Mac customers, while it may not risk much in terms of the bottom line, it does risk shaking the faith of the company’s most vocal and long-term customers. Those fans are clearly frustrated, if the last few quarters of slumping Mac shipments are any indication. The rumor mill is pointing to an imminent refresh, at least of the MacBook Pro. However, while it looks like the new notebook will have a touch-enabled, programmable bar above the keyboard, there’s no indication Apple is any closer to adding an actual touchscreen to the Mac.

I find Apple’s unwillingness to add touch to the Mac both frustrating and somewhat noble. But I can’t help thinking back to how long the company resisted customers’ requests for a larger-screen iPhone. Some people even jumped ship to Android just to move beyond the iPhone’s four-inch display. Eventually Apple acquiesced and, with its large-sized iPhone 6 lineup, it won back many defectors and drove shipments to levels the likes of which it will forever try to match.

Now, many will point to Apple’s continued insistence that, for many people, an iPad is a more ideal personal computer than a notebook. And obviously, the iPad has touch. Others will note that, unlike the vocal demand for a larger-screened iPhone, very few people are publicly asking for touch on the Mac. I happen to think for many long-time Mac-only users, the lack of touch isn’t an issue, because non-touch Macs are all they’ve ever used. But for those of us who move between Windows and the Mac, the omission is becoming glaring. It seems obvious that, at some point, the next generation of potential Mac users — raised exclusively on touchscreens — will find the lack of touch on the Mac unacceptable.
A more fundamental issue?

Apple may well have some highly logical, institutional, user-behavior-driven or design-focused reasons for leaving touch off the Mac. Or maybe Tim Cook just doesn’t care for it. But what if touch — and more broadly the Mac in general — has simply fallen victim to the design and management constraints of a company with an ever-expanding lineup of products both announced and in development? With executives focused on wearables, augmented reality, a car, numerous new services, iPads and — oh yeah — a small iPhone business, perhaps there’s little time left in the day to deal with processor updates for the Mac mini, let alone the idea of adding touch to the Mac.

"The next generation of potential Mac users — raised exclusively on touchscreens — will find the lack of touch on the Mac unacceptable."

Ben Thompson has thoroughly discussed the benefits of Apple’s functional organization on his blog. He also put forth the theory earlier this year that what makes Apple good at devices may fundamentally hamper its ability to be good at iterating on services. But what if the company’s current organizational structure is also beginning to limit its ability to consistently rev great hardware? Is it more likely that Apple executives made a conscious decision not to refresh the Mac Pro for what is closing in on 1,000 days, or have they just been too busy to deal with it in a meaningful way? At Apple, is it better or worse to let a device grow absurdly old, or to push a minor upgrade devoid of deeper product introspection?

In the end, I bring up the subject of touch because, as noted, it took the broader PC industry several years to get it right. Apple’s vertical integration suggests that it would likely get the OS and hardware closer to correct right out of the gate. However, there would still be a substantial lag before most Mac software caught up.

Maybe it’s true that Apple’s devotion to the idea that the iPad is the best touch-based Apple computer for most people precludes it from adding touch to the Mac. Maybe they just don’t want to deal with the associated challenges when the payoff seems hard to quantify. But couldn’t the same be said of a feature such as 3D Touch on the iPhone?

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