Why Apple Shouldn’t (and Probably Won’t) Release a Touch-Screen Mac

By  |  Tuesday, August 26, 2008 at 3:18 am

Over at CNet’s The Digital Home blog, Don Reisinger has posted a plea for Apple to release a touch-screen Mac computer. The meme isn’t new–in part because Apple patent filings have suggested for years that the company has at least thought about making such a beast.

I disagree with Don, though, that Apple should release a…well, let’s call it a Mac Touch…”as soon as possible.” And while it’s completely true that predicting what Apple will or won’t do is dangerous, I kind of doubt that a Mac Touch is imminent. Here’s why.

–The Tablet PC has been a miserable failure. It’s been almost six years since Microsoft rolled out Windows-based tablets. I remember asking a Microsoft exec at the time how he thought the platform would do; he told me that he thought that most laptops would be tablets within a few years. Instead, it seems more likely that Tablet PC might just disappear, except for vertical business applications.

(Side note: The Tablet PC rollout featured Rob Lowe–yet another oddball Microsoft celebrity endorsement.)

I was skeptical about Tablet PC at the time, and was therefore not the least bit surprised that it failed to catch fire. You can’t build a good general-purpose Windows laptop that doesn’t have a physical keyboard, and if you do provide a physical keyboard, touch becomes a lot less compelling. And to this day, Microsoft’s answers to basic questions about touch-based interfaces remain unsatisfying.

It’s likely that a Mac Touch would be substantially different from a Tablet PC–for one thing, it would likely involve multi-touch and fingertip control rather than a stylus–and Apple would likely offer a much more refined approach than Microsoft. But I think that the failure of Tablet PCs shows that consumer interest in touch interfaces on standard computers is lukewarm, to put it mildly. And while Apple often enters nascent markets before anyone’s had a big hit, it’s rare to see it do anything where other companies have experienced nothing but failure.

–Keyboards and touch don’t mesh that well. Don says that a Mac Touch should have a physical keyboard. But if it’s essentially a normal MacBook with a multi-touch screen, there are all kinds of usability issues. Do you really want to reach over the keyboard to touch the screen? Can you design a MacBook with a hinge that stands up to lots of finger-pointing? Would people be able to deal with finger-smudging? And if the design is more like a Tablet PC convertible, with a screen that rotates around to conceal the keyboard, would Apple be able to provide enough functionality with a touch-only interface to make the experience worthwhile? (Folks are willing to deal with the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard because it has clear upsides in terms of device and screen size; I’m not sure that the same would be true of a Mac Touch.) If the Mac Touch was a desktop–Don doesn’t explicitly say he thinks it should be a portable–would it have more potential than HP’s interesting but nichey TouchSmart PC?

–What could you do with a touch-screen Mac, anyhow? Don doesn’t really address this. Presumably, it might offer some features similar to the iPhone’s touch-driven photo viewer, media player, and so forth. It might even use a touch-screen as a replacement for a standard touchpad (or an alternative–a Mac Touch might sport both). But it’s not clear that a touch-driven interface on an otherwise typical Mac would provide any compelling benefits.

–Apple is so dang busy with other stuff. Even Steve Jobs said that the glitchy rollout of Mobile Me was evidence that the company had bitten off more than it could chew in one big gulp. Doing touch well would be a major undertaking, and I wonder whether Apple would see it as having enough potential payoff to be worth the work involved.

I’m completely willing to be proven wrong here. Maybe Apple has figured out how to make touch make sense. (If it has, I woudn’t be surprised if its device looks less like a touch-screen Mac and more like a hybrid device that’s sort of like a Mac and sort of like an iPhone, and sized in between.) Maybe it hasn’t figured out touch, but is going to try anyhow, just because the idea sounds theoretically cool.

Actually, I’m not just willing to be proven wrong–I’d love to see a Mac Touch that makes sense. One thing’s for sure: Steve Jobs has more vision when it comes to this stuff than I do…



4 Comments For This Post

  1. Alan Says:

    Although I’m not looking for a mac touch or the like, one way they could handle the keyboard issue is to have a slide out. When engaged the on-screen keyboard would be disabled. With a 13 inch screen this would be doable IMHO. As far as a use of this product, I have a hard time coming up with a mass use function. Would be nice if used like a book that could be propped for reading recipes, viewing diagrams and the like. But for day in and day out usage, no one would sell enough to make it a viable product. Although I’m sure if Apple did it, fanboys and girls would buy one just to say they have one. Before anyone thinks I’m an apple hater, I have a MBP, TC, APE, APX, 2 iphones, nano and a shuffle.

  2. Dave S. Says:

    Perhaps, I’m crazy here, but a very very slim mac touch might make sense in the way that iPhone does. I’ve become very interested in this idea of an iPhone that is twice as long and twice as wide. A 960×640 pixel screen would give a much stronger web browsing experience and allow for even greater applications. I can think of a lot of interesting creative media applications that could use that kind of digital whiteboard, even without the extreme accuracy of a touch stylus. As for the keyboard, I don’t see why it’s unreasonable to expect that with such a product if you touched a text field in any application, a little keyboard would slide right up just like the iPhone. *Except* that it would be big enough that you could foreseeably use two hands to type on it, kind of like the small but usable keyboard in the Eee PC.

  3. Woadan Says:

    I think the issue is two-fold when it comes to touchscreen PCs.

    The first is price. In order to make a decent touchscrren-based laptop, you have a much more expensive screen than you otherwsie would. And when price point makes a difference, you see lesser hardware being used to keep that down. (Or you see a very expensive one otherwise.) When all is said and done, the screen is going to be one of the most expensive components of the device, and most people want a lower pricepoint than the components will allow. I think the proof of the pudding is in the popularity of the Eee type PCs. Like their UMPC cousins, they are small in size. But the pricepoint different is very high. In the end, I think people mostly want something small and portable, and with a portable price to go along with it.

    The second issue is one of familiarity. For better or for worse, the QWERTY keyboard has been with us for over a century. It’s like a worn old pair of shoes-it’s comfortable (in its own way) and it’s familiar. Getting people past that paradigm has to be done in a way in which they will say “I wonder how we ever did this before!” And while the Vista version of Tablet PCs is an improvement over the XP 2005 Tablet edition, it still leaves something to be desired, even for enthusiasts.

    I think for a touch-enabled PC, you need a serious revision of the OS. heavy OS’s like Vista or even OS X have a lot of built-in things that aren’t typically needed, or are at least unwanted, for a computer that at least purports to be a mobile one. Battery life is important for these machines, and they have failed so far in this respect because they either require expensive additional batteries that also add weight, or the installed/included battery lasts for 3 hours before needing a recharge.

    If Apple or microsoft want to build a touchscreen PC, they need to build an OS from the ground up to take all of this into account. If they won’t do that, then they should not bother.


  4. Gary Harrison Says:

    Personally, I would love to see some kind of touch device. I sit here reading this column on my TC1100 (a tablet/hybrid that Apple should have made, it’s so elegant).

    I think a big part of the failure is the poor marketing. Where do you see them advertised? When can you actually pick up and hold one? IF you find them at places like Best Buy, they are locked down, the stylus is missing, and the sales people haven’t a clue what they are. Who would buy one?

    I can’t tell you the number of times I could have sold mine on the spot. I’ve literally held an impromptu “mini-demo” of my tablet at the TSA security line in several airports to agents (“I WANT one like that; where do I get it?!?”), countless airline passengers and flight attendants and a host of others. Reading, note-taking during meetings, magazine reading (Zinio), movie watching, sales presentations at the restaurant tablet, actually getting work done in cramped, cattle-class seats in airplanes, the list goes on.

    So yes, I’d love to see Apple come out with a touch/digitized Mac. Perhpas with their PR savvy, they could finally help people discover the convenience these crazy little machines offer.

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