August 10 update below, post originally published August 8.
It’s only natural that the geekerati are excited around Apple’s move to ARM-based processors. The first MacBooks with the new technology are expected later this year. While there will be a marketing push (I’m expecting something along the lines of “lighter machine, more power, and longer battery life”), the general consumer will likely compare the MacOS laptops with the Windows 10 laptops.
August 9 update: One area where Apple has already shown signs of improving the Mac platform is in the webcam. Last week saw an update to the Intel-powered iMac. Along with a general bump in specs for memory, storage, and the processor, the FaceTime camera – Apple’s magical name for a webcam – became the first to move up from 720p to 1080p. With the rise of conference calling and online chat due to the Covid-19 fuelled lockdown, having the best webcam possible is vital.
It looks like the next MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models will ship with the same upgraded webcam, according to noted Apple commentator @Lomiya_kj on Twitter. Apple’s 720p laptop webcam offering was already weak before the coronavirus pandemic, but the shift towards working from home has brought it into focus. An update is clearly needed.
August 10 update: One of Apple’s advantages is that, rightly or wrongly, it is seen as pushing the envelope in terms of design and features. That’s why the lack of touchscreens feels out of place on the MacBook range. Not everyone agrees. Building on the release of MacOS 11 Big Sur’s public beta, Bill Thomas for TechRadar makes the argument against touchscreen Macs:
“That is even further expanded with macOS 11 Big Sur, with Apple claiming that every iOS app will be compatible with your Mac, which is definitely huge. Add on to that the shift to Apple Silicon later this year, and there’s a huge shift in the way Macs operate, even if functionally they’ll serve the same purpose.
“But it’s more than just app compatibility here. The macOS Big Sur’s UI brings in a ton of inspiration from the design philosophy of iOS. This could cause some concern for anyone having flashbacks to Windows 8’s marriage of desktop and mobile design, but there’s one thing to keep in mind: there still won’t be touchscreen macs.”
Personally I think that the iOS philosophy makes the argument for the touchscreen.
It’s prevalent throughout the Windows 10 powered laptop market. Although Windows 10 runs quiet happily without it, the addition of the touchscreen adds to Windows 10’s functionality even though it is never demanded. Microsoft has already travelled down the road of a desk-bound OS built around touch as a primary interface (hello Windows 8), and thankfully balanced the needs of both camps in Windows 10.
Looking back over the choices made by Microsoft for its Surface hardware, and you can see the direction the company would like manufacturers to consider. The all-in move to Windows 8 on a touchscreen tablet in the original Surface (nee Surface with Windows RT) was, with hindsight, both ambitious in vision but lacking the foundations for a smooth transition.
The majority of the issues lay in the use of Windows RT, a variant of Windows 8 built for 32-bit ARM devices. It required applications to be shipped through the Windows Store and at a minimum recompiled for the new platform and considerations made for the new touch interface. A handful of devices were released, but Microsoft’s vision of an ARM ecosystem suddenly appearing was little more than a vision.
Roll the clock forward, and you have Windows 10, which brings back most of the classic Windows interface, which is more than enough for older legacy apps to run happily alongside newer apps taking advantage of Windows 10’s new UI elements and touchscreen support.
Touchscreens are widely accepted as part of the Windows ecosystem now. Manufacturers may offer options with and without the interface, but it is an accepted part of a high-end laptop. And it is this part of the laptop experience that MacBook fans have wanted for a long time.
That’s not to say that Apple would not make the decision to bring a touchscreen to the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. Up until now, MacOS has been built around the keyboard and mouse – it would be possible to have a touchscreen that replicates the mouse click, but that would mean a lot of the UI would need to be re-engineered for the larger surface area a finger requires.
With MacOS 11 moving towards an interface that is more iOS and iPad like, along with the confluence of the code that Tim Cook and his team hope will bring more developers and applications to the Mac platform thanks to the switch to ARM. If that’s the case, there’s a very strong argument to add a touchscreen to the next-generation MacBooks that will debut with Apple’s new processors.
The addition of touch screens to the new MacBooks will reinforce the idea that the new Macs are competent and capable laptops, at least outside of Apple’s geekerati.
At which point the key will be how Apple deals with legacy applications.
Just as Microsoft’s Windows 10 on ARM project has built a better foundation for legacy applications (especially when you look back at RT), Apple will have been working behind the scenes to make this as seamless as possible. Nevertheless, anyone looking to move to an ARM-powered Mac will be keeping a careful eye on their critical applications and if they will make the same jump as Apple’s processor.