Would Apple ever make a convertible MacBook?

We’ve heard it straight from Apple: macOS and iOS aren’t
merging together. Instead, Apple is going to bring the iOS app
platform to the Mac in 2019. The result will likely be a macOS
platform that’s still the Mac, but with a much heavier
influence from iOS.

Last week I suggested that this makes me
question the long-term viability of the Mac
, but it’s also
possible that Apple’s moves will lead to a world where I stop
dreaming about
a laptop that runs iOS
because it just won’t be necessary.
It all depends on how much all that iOS-originated software
will change the Mac in the next few years.

Touch of iOS

Apple has steadfastly insisted that touchscreens don’t have a
place on the Mac. Some of that comes from ergonomic
arguments—as Craig Federighi told Wired, “We really feel
that the ergonomics of using a Mac are that your hands are
rested on a surface, and that lifting your arm up to poke a
screen is a pretty fatiguing thing to do.” (Of course, this is
directly contradicted by the fact that Apple sells its own
keyboard for the iPad.)

The ergonomic truth is somewhere in the middle. I wouldn’t want
to use a Mac with a touchscreen as my only form of interaction,
to be sure. But when I’m using my iPad with an external
keyboard, I don’t find it a fatiguing and unpleasant
experience. If all my devices supported touch and traditional
pointing devices, there would be times when each method was the
most convenient one. (When I used a Chromebook with a
touchscreen, I found myself reaching up to casually scroll or
zoom documents… gestures that iOS trained me to internalize.)

The real hurdle to supporting touch on iOS is ergonomics of a
different sort, namely the ergonomics of building interfaces
designed to be manipulated by fingers instead of cursors. Ten
years ago, when the App Store was about to open its doors for
the first time, developers spent a great deal of time trying to
understand just how the iPhone’s touchscreen wasn’t like their
Mac’s screen. At the time, Iconfactory developer Craig
Hockenberry told me about how he was spending a lot of time
measuring his fingertips and trying to understand just how
large items needed to be on screen in order for them to be
activated by our fingers.

macOS and its apps just aren’t created with fingers in mind,
unless those fingers are sliding over a trackpad or grasping a
mouse. But beginning next year, the Mac will potentially be
flooded with apps that were originally designed for touch-based
devices. Yes, just as with the four new Apple apps in macOS
Mojave, they’ll support cursors and the menu bar and keyboard
shortcuts. But they will have been born of the touchscreen…
and that could make a huge difference.

A convertible Mac?

Once a critical mass of Mac apps have been born of iOS, things
start to get interesting. A Mac with a touchscreen today seems
like a weird idea, but would it be weird to touch a screen
that’s running an app that was originally designed to work with
touch?

Again, I’m thinking more of the addition of touch to the
existing mouse-and-keyboard paradigm, not its replacement. But
there is a class of laptop that Apple hasn’t made, that might
be enabled by this scenario: a convertible laptop. These
devices are laptops first, but they’re tablets second—you
either detach their keyboards or flip the keyboard behind the
screen so that you can hold the device like it’s a tablet, but
a bit thicker.

For several years I’ve done my traveling with an iPad rather
than a MacBook because there are lots of instances where I
simply prefer the ergonomics and flexibility of the tablet
design. I can add a keyboard to my iPad when I want—and remove
it when I don’t need a keyboard.

But what if I could travel with a device that would work like a
tablet when I wanted it, but bring all sorts of Mac features to
the table—not just a cursor and pointing device but support for
the Terminal, the ability to natively read SD cards and USB
drives, and of course, compatibility with all the apps I run on
my iMac Pro today. What then? If Apple made a Mac that I could
flip into an almost-tablet, driving iOS-sourced apps with
touch, but able to be quickly flipped back into a more
traditional Mac, would that be the only device I’d want to
travel with?

This week I’ve seen a lot of discussion of WWDC 2018 as a
validation of Apple’s “buy both” strategy—that by keeping the
iPad and Mac pure and separate, both devices can do what
they’re best at, and if you want both sets of features, you
just need to buy and carry both devices. Sounds great, except
running iOS apps on the Mac eliminates the purity, and I don’t
want to carry two devices if I could carry one that does both
jobs. More broadly, I wonder about that strict border between
Mac and iPad. What if it’s drawn in the wrong place? Wouldn’t
some overlap between the two platforms serve the needs of more
users?

This is not easy stuff, and it’ll take Apple years to do
whatever it’s planning on doing. But I see the appeal of an
iPad that’s a bit more like a Mac, and a Mac that’s a bit more
like an iPad. I think both platforms could benefit from
becoming more like one another—and I hope Apple does, too.

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