Is Apple Giving Up on Making Great Computers?

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Apple debuted new versions of the the MacBook Pro — and only the MacBook Pro — today. The event, held at Apple’s campus in Cupertino, was noticeably smaller than the massive crowd that came out September 7 for the unveiling of the iPhone 7. And the mood, at least as seen from the livestream, was muted, the applause — for things like updates to the Apple TV or the release of the Nike+ Apple Watch — not particularly raucous.

But it can’t just be blamed on the size of the crowd. It had been at least a year, and in some cases years, since there had been updates to Apple’s major computing lines. Its latest release, the no-modifying-adjective MacBook, had a lukewarm reception on its release in March 2015. So for the millions of people (like me) who spend the majority of their working day on a Mac computer, it was a chance to get a glimpse that Apple was serious about doing more than making iterative hardware and spec upgrades to its existing line. We didn’t see that.

Apple, of course, would argue otherwise. There was the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, a Retina touchscreen (or, maybe, touch strip?) that runs along the top of the keyboard, replacing the function keys. Apple product chief Phil Schiller took the stage, and in a move reminiscent of how Apple ditched the 3.5-mm headphone port in the iPhone 7, said the function keys were a 40-year-old anachronism and it was time for something new. (Just don’t tell video editors, who regularly use the function keys.)

Indeed, there could be real value in having a part of the keyboard that changes depending on context. Steve Jobs famously complained about this when comparing the iPhone to smartphones with physical keyboards, saying in 2007: “Every application wants a slightly different user interface, a slightly optimized set of buttons just for it. And what happens if you think of a great idea six months from now? You can’t run around and add a button to these things. They’re already shipped. So what do you do? It doesn’t work because the buttons and the controls can’t change.”

That’s what the Touch Bar promises — a bit of the keyboard that can change. Apple did its level best to show that the Touch Bar would be useful to professionals, bringing up Susan Prescott to show off Final Cut Pro, Bradee Evans of Adobe to show off Photoshop, and Karim Morsy, CEO of music app Algoriddim, to show off music creation. They all had use cases of how Touch Bar can be useful, and some of them are compelling. Having a constant timeline of your entire project in Final Cut Pro would be helpful. Switching colors of a brush on the fly in Photoshop would be great, as would being able to edit in a full-screen mode, no toolbars in sight. And, uh, DJing on the tiny strip of the Touch Bar seems possible, at least!

But unlike a lot of other Apple innovations, I don’t think you’ll see copycats on the Touch Bar. I think it’ll be like the ThinkPad nub, a small pointing device found in the middle of the keyboard on Lenovo ThinkPads and almost nowhere else: useful in its own way, but not so useful that anyone outside of a few diehards would say it’s mandatory. Compare this to the elegance of the Surface Pro Pen stylus, with its smooth drawing action and “oh, of course” eraser function at the back, which has already seen imitators (including, of course, Apple itself).

And to revisit Jobs’s point about physical buttons: The solution he and Apple hit on wasn’t to create a small strip on the phone that would be context-aware. They made the whole phone into a touchscreen. And nothing shown on the Touch Bar today wouldn’t also be possible if Apple made a laptop screen that was also a large touchscreen. It’s hard not to compare the tiny strip of touchability added to the new MacBook Pro today to the 28 inches of touchscreen Microsoft showed off yesterday with its Surface Studio. Size doesn’t matter, but usability does, and I question how much long-term usability there’s going to be in the Touch Bar. I don’t really question that with the Surface Studio — just whether it’ll find a large-enough audience of creative professionals who will be willing to make the switch from Apple to Windows.

There are reasons that Apple doesn’t make touchscreen laptops. Apple engineers have tried it internally and found it an unsatisfying experience. Apple’s desktop OS and iOS are vastly different creatures, and reconciling them would be difficult. This is a problem Microsoft hasn’t solved, either: while Microsoft’s Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 are both real joys to use, there’s still some inherent jank in Windows 10 — an OS that was essentially designed to be used with keyboard and mouse — when you try to use it with touch alone.

But this used to be what Apple was really good at. It studied gaps in how competitors thought about their computers, their phones, their tablets, and then created hardware and software that was just plain better: elegant and blindingly obvious in retrospect. Now it mainly makes computers, phones, and tablets that are bigger or lighter or more powerful, and occasionally have new features like a Touch Bar or a touch pad with haptic feedback.

And in the meantime, it’s shrunk down its line of computers. There were no updates to the desktop iMac. The MacBook Air was basically dragged through the mud, with the strong suggestion made that users should simply upgrade to a MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar instead. The cheapest of the new Macs on sale now is now $1,499. The cheapest Mac that it seems it will continue to support for any period in the future, the 12-inch MacBook, is $1,299. (I would be willing to bet good money that we never see another update to the MacBook Air line.) All this makes financial sense: Apple makes more money off services like iCloud and Apple Music than it does selling computers. But it’s sad to see them back away from innovating in the space — and shocking to realize that it’s the formerly hidebound, deeply unhip Microsoft that is leading the charge into the future of what personal computers will be.

Tim Cook took a moment today to note that it has been 25 years since the debut of the original PowerBook, and then reeled off a list of things that Apple did first in laptops: first built-in Wi-Fi, first aluminum unibody, first all-Flash memory. All these things have become industry standard. There was nothing we saw today that will do the same.