Is the Touch Screen Mac Coming Any Time Soon?

Ever since Apple’s initial foray into touch screen technology with the iPhone, people have wondered whether touch based input would make the transition to the Mac desktop. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have an iMac that you could reach out and touch, swiping between applications and interacting with your media?

Well, maybe. Consumers are divided on whether or not this would be a good thing and, despite many other computer manufacturers including this technology in their machines, Apple has taken a fairly out-spoken stance against it. It’s now almost four years since the release of the first iPhone and we’re yet to see any sign of touch screen input making its way to the Mac.

But will this always be the case? And – even if Apple does decide to start shipping new-fangled touch screen Macs – would it be something we’d really use?

No Stranger to Experimentation

Despite many people outwardly rebuking Apple for not shipping touch screen desktop and notebook computers, they are no stranger to experimenting with – and receiving criticism for – input methods.

Over the past few years they have released a range of gradually improving gesture-enabled trackpads and mice, along with all the software that accompanies them. I’m a huge fan of the Magic Trackpad built into my MacBook, and am now certain that the Magic Mouse is the best mouse I’ve ever owned.

Let’s also not forget that it wasn’t until 2005 that Apple even shipped a two button mouse, so strong was their conviction that one button was the simplicity that most people needed. This is a company that sticks by their guns.

Jobs Says No

Unlike many of the subjects we Apple geeks speculate about, there’s some strong evidence to suggest Apple’s view on this specific debate. In 2010, Steve Jobs spent some time talking about touch screen Macs while presenting at their “Back to the Mac” special event:

We’ve done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical.

It gives great demo but after a short period of time, you start to fatigue and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off. It doesn’t work, it’s ergonomically terrible.

Steve Jobs, presenting at the "Back to the Mac" event in 2010

Steve Jobs, presenting at the "Back to the Mac" event in 2010

Strong words, but they certainly make sense. I can’t for a moment imagine spending hours interacting with a touch screen Mac, and even the notion of typing on one could probably give you a bout of RSI.

It’s clear to see that Apple hasn’t stuck it’s head in the sand and ignored this opportunity altogether. The technology is out there, but Apple has done the user testing and decided that it doesn’t make sense.

Of course, sometimes it can be advisable to take Steve Jobs’ words with a pinch of salt. Times change, and so do Apple’s priorities – it was only back in 2003 that Jobs make it very clear that Apple had “no plans to make a tablet“.

Back to the Mac

One argument for the inclusion of a touch screen centres around the range of apps that are making the move from iOS to the Mac App Store. These were all originally designed for use with a touch screen, and many feel fairly un-natural when used with a keyboard and mouse.

Angry Birds, for instance, is a great way to demonstrate the capabilities of gaming on the iPad. All that magic disappears instantly when you’re dragging birds around with your mouse – it just isn’t the same.

This argument certainly holds some weight – there are thousands of apps available for iOS, and many of could instantly be available for use on the Mac if a touch screen were introduced. People wouldn’t use it for typing out long documents, but it could be a fun extra for desktop gaming and software that has a high level of interactivity.

That said, I suppose Apple’s response to this would simply be “get an iPad”. It’s a device made for touch screen interactivity, and has features such as an accelerometer that could simply never work on an iMac (unless you’re this guy).

The Resolution Issue

A trend in Apple’s latest MacBooks has been towards a higher screen resolution in their smaller displays. The new 11″ MacBook Air, for instance, has the equivalent resolution of the 13″ MacBook. This means that everything appears slightly smaller, with greater detail in a tighter space.

This is perfect for a device such as the MacBook Air, making an 11″ screen a usable choice for most tasks. The tradeoff you make when choosing a tiny form factor is lessened, as you can still fit plenty of content and information on the smaller display.

For those of you hoping to see a completely touch-enabled version of OS X, this poses a problem. If you’re wanting to use your MacBook at the recommend native resolution – anything else would look awful – you’ll be left with tiny targets to try and tap with your finger.

Anything other than a mouse pointer doesn’t cut it at this resolution, and it would be an unpleasant, frustrating experience to use the MacBook Air with a touch screen. And just to pre-empt any mention of it, let’s not get dragged into a discussion about the humble stylus. I think we’ve established that Apple has no intention whatsoever of releasing a stylish stylus – however beautifully designed it would be.

No Time Soon

The bottom line is that Apple has looked into this, built the technology, and done the user testing. Touch screen Macs certainly exist somewhere in the research labs at Cupertino, but they won’t be seeing the light of day any time soon.

Although the arguments for a touch screen-enabled Mac are getting stronger every year (and OS X Lion seems set to make this even more apparent), I wouldn’t get your hopes up. This is a technology that Apple know an awful lot about, but it simply doesn’t yet make sense to port it to the desktop.

Personally, I’m fine with Apple’s stance on this issue. I can’t see myself having any use whatsoever for a touch screen Mac, but your opinion may well differ! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, so feel free to share. Is this something you’d really like to see? And if so, why?