Decoding Apple’s Touch Bar philosophy

Developing new user interfaces takes time; Apple's Touch Bar is a case in point.

Apple, iPad, Mac, MacBook Pro, Touch Bar, Sidecar, user interfaces, voice control, iOS, iPad, Mac
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Apple has made the Touch Bar introduced in 2016 with the MacBook Pro part of every Mac user’s experience this year, making it available to anyone using an iPad and Mac combination in Sidecar mode.

Why a Touch Bar?

While there are lots of ways the Touch Bar on Macs can benefit users, the strongest use cases tend to be highly focused: media playback; video scrubbing; whizzing through track time lines; and creating and exercising Automator scripts.

All the same, I think most Mac users spend most of their time ignoring Touch Bar. In part, this is because when you type, your fingers tend to occlude the view of the thing, which means any contextual short cuts that do appear are easy to miss.

In addition, in order to use a Touch Bar command, you must take your eyes away from the display, which can actually slow down your workflow. This is why I think most people see it as a bit of a gimmick.

Yet Apple keeps on pushing us to use it — the inclusion of the feature in Sidecar is a clear illustration of that.

There must be a reason. We usually find Apple has a rationale for doing what it does. Sometimes it takes time to see.

So, what does Touch Bar do?

Perhaps we can get some intimations of the reasoning behind Apple’s push by thinking about how we already use the Touch Bar. I've already noted the typical use cases when working on a Mac. Now we have a new way to use the thing, on an iPad in Sidecar mode.

When I’m working in an application on my Mac using my iPad as a second display, I’m presented with two (three) different ways to access additional controls:

  • The sidebar, offering useful modifier keys.
  • The Touchbar, which provides any existing Touch Bar controls for the selected application.
  • (Three: We also see all the application-specific controls we see on our Mac.)

What problem got solved?

I think the principal problem that gets solved in this user interface is that you can use your familiar Mac apps on your iPad in as Mac-like a way as possible. This extends to accessing both contextual and modifier keys and a bunch of app-specific TouchBar shortcuts that would not exist on the iPad otherwise.

(Voice Control adds another layer of usability and arguably has a bigger impact in terms of improving the user interface by liberating it from the keyboard/mouse/GUI model.)

The inclusion of the side- and Touch Bar interfaces also empowers users to get more Mac-like activity out of Mac apps running on a Mac but accessed on a connected tablet. Basically, your Mac becomes a server for your professional applications, and you get all the mobile advantages of using that software from your iPad.

Sidecar doesn’t (yet) let you access applications running on your Mac via a VPN connection to the Mac you keep at home. But that feels like a perfectly reasonable future outcome and it's certainly a nice addition to iCloud, given the demise of Back to My Mac (which wasn't particularly easy to use or stable).

So, we can see that the biggest problem TouchBar solves isn’t about enhancing usability on a Mac but seems more about improving access to Mac apps on a mobile device. Though it had to be introduced on a Mac first to prove its relevance.

That, arguably, is what Apple has done.

Why does this matter?

Apple’s Catalyst apps enable developers to build apps on iPads that can then run on a Mac.

Yes, not all these ports are easy, and developers do seem to be finding roadblocks and missing features that must be resolved to accelerate development and enable better user experiences. But these problems will be identified and resolved over time.

Sidecar works in the opposite direction. It sets the scene in which more complex Mac-like user interfaces can be supported on an iPad.

Both technologies allow the iPad to remain an iPad and the Mac to remain a Mac. They manage to both celebrate the differences between the two platforms and also bridge the gap between them.

In this model, the platforms remain unique, but the notion of software portability and platform-agnostic access becomes philosophically dominant.

Where is this going?

We have two unique platforms being guided to work more closely together while retaining their individual identities. It's essentially a model in which the software you use becomes increasingly interchangeable across both platforms.

In recent years, we have seen multiple attempts by Apple to evolve user interfaces: The traditional GUI has become a peer player on a team that also includes touch, the Touch Bar, voice and (eventually, I believe) gesture.

It’s easy to fall into the notion that this is all about merging both the Mac and iPad platforms, but I think that’s unlikely. I’d argue that both platforms have, and will continue to have, their own individual validity and identity.

Steve Jobs never predicted we’d stop using trucks, he simply suggested a future in which PCs are used for different sets of tasks, leaving space for a lot of mobile devices on the tech industry superhighway.

Apple will continue to offer both desktop and mobile platforms until people stop needing them or the company can credibly replace them with something better…. So, if it’s not about merging the platforms, what is Apple building?

Why is it insisting we become accustomed to using the Touch Bar on/with Macs/iPads?

I think it’s a bigger ambition. I think Apple is moving incrementally towards building completely new user interaction models for completely new technology platforms.

Just as the GUI unleashed those 'bicycles for the mind' and MultiTouch set the scene for the digital transformation of everything. That's much more than merging platforms.

It's about creating completely new ones.

Feel free to tell me what you expect to see…

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

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