With the removal of the Touch Bar from top-of-the-line MacBook
Pro models–and make no mistake, the grim reaper is coming for the
13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, too–Apple's
era of experimentation with the keyboard is over. Out with 2015's
butterfly keyboard, out with 2016's Touch Bar, in with the Magic
Keyboard and a row of full-height function keys.
For some reason, in the middle of the 2010s, Apple decided it
was ready to reinvent how keyboards on laptops
work. It was a bad decision that the company has spent years trying
to fix. Of all the innovations from that period, the only one that
remains intact is the Touch ID sensor on the power button. The rest
of the changes are just a bad memory. So now what?
Stick with the classics
Never say never, but it sure feels like Apple has learned its
lesson–or at least has been beaten up enough for its decisions for
a good, long while. While it's not very Apple-like to consider any
area of its products completely solved and impervious to
innovation, when Apple pushed on the keyboard, the keyboard (and
its users) pushed back. Hard.
Taking it easy for a while seems like a very good idea. The
truth is, we rely on our computers–and the keyboards attached to
them–to do our work, day in and day out. It's not always glamorous,
whether it's sending an email or writing a college paper or filling
out a web form, but it's usually important.
Reliability matters. Especially on a laptop keyboard, since it's
integrated with the rest of the device. On an iMac, I can swap out
Apple's included external keyboard for one I like better. On a
MacBook, I don't have that option. And if an external keyboard
breaks, you can substitute a new one and keep on working–but with a
laptop, you have to take it in for repair and lose your entire
And then there's the fact that keyboards have worked pretty well
for decades, looking more or less like they do today. (In fact,
these days I write on a mechanical keyboard that looks and sounds a
lot like something I would have written on in the 1980s.) Longevity
also leads to ubiquity, and ubiquity equals familiarity. Pretty
much everyone knows how a keyboard works, and we can all pick up a
computer and start using it without needing to familiarize
ourselves with how text input will work.
That's boring and not cutting edge… but it's powerful all the
same. Everyone knows how it works. If you want to change it, you'd
better change it for the better.
The Globe key (lower left with the fn key) was introduced with
the iPad external keyboard and is now on the MacBook Pro. Image: Apple
In fact, the only real recent innovation Apple has introduced to
the keyboard is its rechristening of the venerable Fn key–used to
toggle between functions on the function-key row of the keyboard–as
the Globe key. iPadOS 15 makes great use of the Globe key for global
keyboard shortcuts, but that globe symbol also appears on the Mac,
and it seems like Apple is going to lean into it as an additional
layer for keyboard shortcuts.
It's hard to resist
And yet, it's hard to imagine that Apple isn't still dreaming of
ways it could improve or reinvent the keyboard. So despite the
scars it bears from the mid-2010s, I've got to think Apple
designers and engineers will continue to ask themselves if there
are ways they can improve the input experience on Mac laptops.
A few years ago I pondered this very question with more than a
little trepidation. Over the years, we've seen patent filings for
various keyboard improvements that made it seem like Apple was
driving to a future where the physical keyboard would be entirely
replaced with a second touchscreen. No moving parts, no key travel,
but maybe a little tactile feedback. The ultimate victory of the
That seems… a lot less likely now. In 2020 Apple introduced the
Magic Keyboard for iPad, which seems like a pretty solid admission
that physical keys and a trackpad are the answer, not just on the
Mac, but on any laptop-like device.
Still, there might be ways for Apple to move input forward on
the Mac. Making the Mac's display a touchscreen is still out there
as a possibility, despite Apple's refusal thus far to consider it.
A future Mac that could be used with an Apple Pencil is another
possibility. Ergonomic considerations probably prevent this from
being very likely.
The trackpad, which Apple has continued to enlarge, is an
interesting possibility for a successor to the Touch Bar. Imagine a
larger trackpad surface with a display underneath, allowing
portions of the surface to be mapped to different functions with
visual feedback. It could happen, though after a decade spent
unwinding its keyboard mistakes, I'm not sure Apple wants to risk
screwing up the trackpad.
There's one area where there's recently been a lot of excitement
when it comes to key input, though, and perhaps Apple could take a
lesson from it: macro pads like Elgato's Stream
Deck and Loupedeck's Loupedeck Live combine a button-driven interface
with custom software that allows the buttons to display custom
labels and change appearance in different modes.
Apple's next input innovation could take some cues from devices
like Elgato's Stream Deck. Image: Elgato
I wonder if there's something there that could combine some of
the appeal of the Touch Bar with the tactile feel of the
traditional function-key row. I use a Stream Deck Mini, and while I
could attach all of the functions I've assigned to its buttons to
the function keys on my keyboard, it's much better to be
able to see exactly what I'm going to get when I press the
Maybe Apple will get excited about taking another crack at the
traditional keyboard someday. I'd love to see Stream Deck-style
programmable labels in the function row. Or maybe Apple will decide
to put new focus on the Touch Bar, as Macworld's
Michael Simon has suggested. But you know what? If the price we all
pay for Apple's dalliance with the Touch Bar and the butterfly
keyboard in the mid-2010s is that for the next decade, Apple just
focuses on shipping a reliable traditional keyboard, it's probably
We've all seen the alternative. Boring and traditional isn't so
bad, after all.