Last week brought the first—and surprising—rumor from AppleInsider of an OLED touch bar above a new MacBook Pro (MBP) keyboard. At the time, I tweeted an image I mocked up of what that touch bar may represent.
This week brings a fresh rumor, including a supposed spy shot, of the OLED touch bar, so I thought I’d write a blog post to further explain my mockup from last week, with the amazing ways it could be used on a Mac.
Let’s discuss the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard cover, first, and why it’s so fantastic. I blogged about this last fall, as soon as I got my hands on one.
Many techies have complained about the iPad Pro keyboard’s lack of function keys, but as I said in my blog post, this is actually a benefit, not a curse. Why?
Well, function keys are fine for what they are, but you have to admit they’re pretty inscrutable and inflexible. In fact, I’d bet 90%+ of users only use them to control media playback and brightness & volume—but that’s only half their use.
The function keys on a physical keyboard are labelled F1 – F12, and most users never use them. (Yes, yes, I know, you are a technical person using Xcode or FCP X or Photoshop or Excel and you use them all the time. You, my friend, are a minority of Mac users). The last time I used function keys was in Word Perfect 4.2 for DOS, with Alt+F2 and Shift+F6 among the dozens of combinations I had to remember (or use the little keyboard template that fit about the function keys).
Apple surely knew that few people—and certainly fewer new users—would ever use function keys as function keys on a Mac or iPad.
So when Apple came out with the Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro, they dispensed with the function keys completely. Oh, how the tech bloggers wailed…
But Apple, of course, had a much better idea. As I explained in detail in my earlier blog post, there are 2 ways it’s better on an iPad Pro:
- For things like media playback, volume, & brightness, just swipe up from the bottom of the screen to bring up Control Center.
- For things like bold, italics, and (yikes) underlining, Apple shows a toolbar onscreen at the bottom of the screen.
This works because the keyboard on an iPad Pro is so close to the touchscreen. Here’s an image from my earlier blog post:
With your fingers on the home row, you can easily reach up and touch the controls on the screen.
Compare that to a MacBook or Surface Pro or Surface Pad, where your hands are simply too far away:
Of course, the MacBook Pro is not a touchscreen device, so that also makes having an onscreen toolbar silly—it’s not just that the toolbar would be out of reach.
On top of all that, function keys act differently in each program. F5 might mean Save in one program but Delete in another. Who wants to memorize all that. It’s not 1985, folks. We’re in 2016.
Apple solved these problems in iOS by (1) using Control Center for media & screen control, and other OS-wide actions, and (2) adding something called an inputAccessoryView to onscreen text controls. For example, when you’re in Apple’s Pages word processor, editing text, a toolbar appears above the keyboard (on iPhones & iPads) with buttons for bold, italic, font, text size, etc. How much nicer that is than function keys!
It’s very much like having the graphical toolbar in Word or PowerPoint, but context sensitive. And when you hook up the Smart Keyboard on an iPad Pro (or an external keyboard) this toolbar appears at the bottom of the screen. It’s really a fantastic user experience.
OK, so what does this all have to do with MacBook Pro’s and an OLED touch bar?
Well, Apple solved the function key problem on iOS with Control Center and inputAccessoryView. But what about OS X? These things don’t exist on OS X. Mac’s don’t have touchscreens.
Well, now they do. Or, at least, MacBook Pro will now have an OLED touch bar. Maybe someday the Magic Keyboard will, too.
This brings all the benefits of iOS’s solution to OS X and Mac’s.
By having an OLED touch screen instead of function keys, Apple can bring the API that supports inputAccessoryView to the Mac (helping developers create apps that work identically on iOS and OS X).
While you’re in the Finder in OS X, the OLED touch bar will display things like volume & brightness & media playback controls. When you’re in Pages, it’ll display buttons for bold, italic, font, text size, etc. (and maybe a generic button to bring up media playback, too). When you’re in FCP X, the OLED touch bar will display options for editing video.
Isn’t that a far better solution than unchanging function keys?
It’s like how the iPhone’s virtual keyboard was so much more flexible than the BlackBerry’s physical keyboard. A display-driven key can be any size, match the look of the current app, and even allow you to drill down into further, more complex options (tap the Font virtual key and it may show a list of most common fonts you use).
The OLED touch bar is a far better solution to function keys. It helps users, it helps app developers, and it helps Apple.