Apple’s choice to bring control centre to the Mac, with Big Sur’s large buttons and bulbous sliders, was enough to set a budding Apple rumour mill whirring about something the company have been insistent will never happen: a touchscreen Mac. But I don’t think the time is now.
It’s not to say that Apple have never gone back on their word; when the industry changes or their competitors storm down a path they have previously mocked, Apple will change course. But signals they may be building a device that CEO Tim Cook once said would be a ‘toaster fridge’ — a combination Mac and iPad — are not large enough to suggest that macOS 11 is anywhere close to being a touch OS.
There was anticipation in some circles about Apple’s launch of laptops with their own silicon, but I was not surprised to see them use familiar form factors. They needed to reassure wary customers that this is the same Mac as before, just better. Developers have spent the summer building for Apple Silicon with a beta OS still clearly designed for a mouse and keyboard.
Nonetheless, perhaps overwhelming redesigns with ProMotion touchscreens are just too far down the pipeline to be visible.
Big Sur does add more spacing around user interface elements. Alan Dye’s design sensibilities are not hidden, with more whitespace and less contrast. What many believers miss is just because a button is larger, it doesn’t mean its action is touch friendly. A large button in the Finder is likely to reveal a context menu that would be finicky to tap. After their November event, Craig Federighi told The Independent they had redesigned their desktop interface “not remotely considering something about touch.”
I believe Craig. Look at the menu bar, a staple of macOS clearly designed for mouse input. Dropdown menus with nested controls rely on a hover state and a precise pointer. You can’t swipe down to open control centre — it’s a button.
There are hints that Apple is eying a future of desktop touchscreens as Apple Silicon on Macs can run unmodified iOS apps, but it does so in a strange state that requires key combinations to swipe and pinch on a clunky implementation that Dieter Bohn at The Verge called “a messy, weird app experience” from a “gallery of abandonware.” A far cry from the lauded cursor support on iPadOS.
Apple have made their touch-first iPad software work extremely well with a trackpad, and apps are embracing the cursor fast, so it is surprising that running unmodified apps on the Mac is so bad. It is also worth asking: if they can make touch interfaces work great with a pointer on iPad, why can’t they make clickable interfaces work great with touch?
Surely, iOS apps on the Mac and the iPad cursor are signs Apple is looking to blur the line between tap and click. Yet if they were, why would they continue to pour effort into Mac Catalyst, updating the framework that brings iPad apps to the Mac to make them look and feel more like Mac apps, not less, even with a specific Mac Idiom mode? If touch was coming, why double down on letting developers create great Mac specific experiences?
Unless, of course, they are buying time for a grander transition.
Looking long into the distance, when Apple’s chips are mature and PC innovation pulls them into being more feature competitive, I have no doubt touch will come. But for now, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Big Sur is clearly a mouse driven interface that would have a terrible, clunky, touch experience. I’m sure we will see further changes to design, layout and input well before we swipe and pinch our Finder.
For now, the iPad is far too good a touchscreen Mac to need anything more.