Apple may be about to enable a feature that has been a major point of contention between iPads and Macs.
According to Bloomberg, Apple’s MacBook laptops may get touchscreens as soon as 2025, after years of vehemently denying the possibility. But what does this mean for current MacBook and Windows laptop owners, as well as those considering switching from one platform to the other?
I return to the subject on a regular basis, most recently in the summer when I asked, “Why don’t MacBooks have touchscreens?” One of my standard responses has always been, “Because Apple wants you to think you need a MacBook and an iPad to get the full Apple experience.”
But, if the new reports are correct, it represents a significant shift in a topic that has long been a source of contention between the iPad and the Mac. We’ve been thinking about the long dance between iPads and MacBooks for many years, and we’ve written about the convergence of features and software as far back as 2010.
We’ve dubbed it a grand unified theory of Apple operating systems over the years, and the idea is that over time, iPads will add more Mac-like features (or more computer-like features), and Macs, particularly MacBooks, will add features from the iPad side. In fact, this has already begun to occur.
After all, when you add an (expensive) keyboard case to an iPad, you get something that looks and feels like a clamshell laptop. This is especially true now that iPads can use a mouse or trackpad and multitask more like computers.
We first requested this 12 years ago.
My colleague Scott Stein first advocated for this convergence in 2010, saying that “it would make a lot of sense for iMacs and MacBooks to be able to launch a touch-optimized iOS mode that would take advantage of the already multitouch-ready iPad/iPhone software.”
The following year, I inquired whether the then-new touchscreen iPad should be “considered a computer?” and then asked the same question again for the iPad’s 10th anniversary in 2020. In that sense, Apple has been producing touchscreen computers for many years, and incorporating the iPad feature into the MacBook line isn’t such a crazy idea.
The main argument against touchscreen Macs has long been that “after a short period of time, you start to fatigue, and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off,” as Steven Jobs once said. It doesn’t work, and it’s bad for your back.
That is certainly true, as someone who has been testing and reviewing laptops since before Apple’s MacBook line existed… if you use the touchscreen as your only or primary way to interact with a laptop. There’s a reason touchscreens became popular on Windows laptops around the release of Windows 8, and why they’ve since become a standard feature on almost any midrange laptop and above.
The touchscreen should not be your only, or even primary, input method. Instead, I’ve discovered that it can be a very useful way to use your computer on occasion. This could include tapping an onscreen button, scrolling through long webpages or documents, or even rearranging desktop windows. Touchscreens on laptops are terrible as a full-time input device. Touchscreens on laptops are excellent as an occasional input device for specific tasks.
My colleagues and I have frequently advocated for Mac touchscreens over the years. I stated in 2018: “Even if it never happens, I believe adding touchscreens to MacBooks is a good idea. Even low-cost Windows laptops now include the technology, which is a genuinely useful extra.” Scott wrote the same year, “Perhaps Macs will evolve more touch functions over time, becoming smaller and more similar to iPads.” (He’s also covered the subject in numerous other articles over the years.)
It’s already happened, in a way.
Apple and others have already experimented with touch on Macs, with mixed results. That is the most compelling argument I can make against touchscreen MacBooks.
The 2016 MacBook Pro touchbar was a small secondary touchscreen display. It never really caught on, and many people were relieved when it was removed from newer models (it lives on, for now, in the current 13-inch MacBook Pro, which is a bit of a throwback).
Even before that, aftermarket products such as the AirBar promised to add touch capabilities to MacBooks, but they never quite delivered.
The original touchscreen MacBook was a device called the ModBook from the Axiotron company. It was a standard MacBook Pro that had been disassembled and reassembled with a new touchscreen as a Mac-based tablet. I reviewed it in 2008 and was “impressed with the engineering behind Axiotron’s rebuilt, tabletized MacBook,” but it was “an expensive oddity” without any keyboard and lacking even basic screen rotation.
While that idea didn’t last long, it raises the possibility that adding a touchscreen can pave the way for new Mac designs that are more akin to convertible Windows computers, accelerating the eventual Mac/iPad convergence.
Assuming that future MacBooks retain their already excellent keyboards and touchpads, adding a touchscreen does not have to detract from the overall experience. In fact, I’d wager that touch on a Mac would feel roughly the same as touch on a Windows laptop — a feature that’s usually built in by default and is there when you need it, but easy to overlook the rest of the time.