by Matt Kapko

What Apple’s new Touch Bar means for Mac users

News Analysis
Oct 28, 2016
AppleComputers and PeripheralsConsumer Electronics

Apple this week introduced new MacBook Pros with 'Touch Bars' that hint at Apple's future strategy for touch tech in macOS. However, the price of the refreshed laptops might put them out of reach for many enterprises.

apple macbook pro touch bar
Credit: REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach

Apple yesterday introduced a touch-enabled and dynamic input strip for its line of MacBook Pro laptops. Called Touch Bar, it’s the most noteworthy addition to Apple’s premium notebooks in years and could be an early indicator of the company’s plans to bring more touch functionality to MacBooks. The new feature is also another example of Apple’s decision to mix the core experiences of iOS and macOS. The strategy could be viewed either as a middle-of-the-road approach or a deliberate step toward its vision for the future of computing.

Rhoda Alexander, director of tablet and PC research at IHS, says the Touch Bar follows Apple’s methodical approach to innovation, and it shouldn’t drastically change the ways customers use MacBooks. “This gives a blend between relying on the mechanical piece for something that works really well, that people are very comfortable with, while giving you that enhancement of the Touch Bar” to add new functionality, she says.

Apple path veers away from Google, Microsoft strategies

The separation between Mac computers and iOS mobile devices is notably different from the way Microsoft and Google approach touch technology. “Whereas Microsoft this week reemphasized its touch displays for Windows PCs with the Surface Studio, Apple reserves full touch displays for its iOS devices and focuses on the horizontal plane when it comes to interaction with Macs,” wrote Jan Dawson, chief analyst and founder of Jackdaw Research, in a research note. “The Touch Bar and larger trackpad reinforce this sense that Apple thinks you want to interact with your laptop while keeping your hands down rather than constantly reaching up and touching the screen.”  

[Related: Microsoft unveils Creative Update and the Surface Studio]

With its new MacBooks, Apple retained functionality that customers are comfortable with in a traditional clamshell form factor while incorporating touch in a limited, but useful way, according to Alexander.

The Touch Bar is an extension of the keyboard and trackpad and is comprised of three regions: a system button area to the left, app-specific controls in the middle, and core functions such as volume and brightness adjustments to the right. The touch-enabled surface is not a display for alerts, messages or “anything else that commands the user’s attention or distracts from their work on the main screen,” Apple wrote in its related developer guidelines. “The Touch Bar is considered an extension of the keyboard, and people don’t expect animation in their keyboard.” Apple also doesn’t want Touch Bar to be used as a replacement for keyboard shortcuts. 

“The Touch Bar is actually using touch in a very unique manner that supplements the use of the trackpad and the display,” says Van Baker, research vice president at Gartner

macbook pro apple ceo tim cook REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach

Apple CEO Tim Cook (R) views the new MacBook Pro in the demo room after an Apple media event in Cupertino, Calif., on Oct. 27, 2016. 

Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, says the Touch Bar suggests that Apple plans to build more touch capabilities into macOS. “Over time I can see [Apple] replacing the entire keyboard with a touch display.” However, Apple won’t likely introduce a touch-enabled monitor to MacBooks because it would “violate Apple’s workflow vision where everything is contiguous and uninterrupted,” he says. 

“Apple is vehement that touchscreens do not make sense on a notebook and it would ruin their addiction to thinness in their devices to add it to the notebook displays,” says Baker, who is also less than enthused about the possibility of an all-touch keyboard. The majority of people prefer mechanical keyboards to touch input because they want some degree of travel and tactile feedback, he says. “I think a pure touch solution for a keyboard would be rejected by large parts of the market.”

High price of MacBook Pros may limit enterprise adoption

The new MacBook Pros with Touch Bar aren’t cheap — prices start at $1,800 for the 13-inch model and $2,400 for the 15-inch laptop — and that could affect enterprise adoption. Alexander thinks many organizations will either opt for more affordable MacBooks, a product line that IHS expects Apple to refresh in 2017, or go with new 13-inch MacBook Pros without Touch Bars, which start at $1,500.

Due to their high prices, some enterprises will relegate them to specific subsets of their users, according to Baker says. “Broad adoption in the enterprise is unlikely as a result,” he says. Alexander agrees and suggests business adoption of the higher-end MacBook Pros will likely occur in niche environments where the enhanced capabilities can be put to specific uses.

[Related: IBM says Macs save up to $543 per user]

With the exception of Touch ID, which Apple coupled with the Touch Bar to let users unlock their computers with a fingerprint, the MacBook Pro doesn’t have any new must-have features for enterprises, according to Moorhead.

Many Apple watchers, including Moorhead, also hope Apple will soon refresh its desktop computers. “There is absolutely demand for a stationary device if Apple wants to meet all the needs of the enterprise,” he says. IHS says it hasn’t seen any supply chain activity that indicates new desktop Macs will be released in the near term, but Alexander does expect an eventual update. Apple’s path forward on desktop Macs could simply mirror the demand it sees for those computers, which has been on the decline for many years, she says.