Function strip

This is the computer I’m typing on.1

MacBook Air

This was the first good MacBook Air, replacing that weird thing with the flip-out door. I bought it in the fall of 2010, shortly after it was released, and it was a revelation. So thin, so light, so quiet, so quick to boot up. It instantly became my favorite Mac, displacing even the SE/30.2

But it’s thisclose to six years old, and even the best computers don’t last forever. It had a near-death experience last summer, but has somehow managed to heal itself. In the last month I’ve noticed an intermittent problem with the power cord. It’s still running Yosemite, because I figured it wasn’t worth the bother to upgrade the OS on a computer I wouldn’t be using much longer.

Frankly, the Air should have been replaced at least a year ago, but I was waiting for the release of a Retina Air. The MacBook killed that idea and didn’t replace it with a computer I wanted. The relatively low power of the MacBook doesn’t bother me, but the 12″ screen does. While this is my portable computer for business travel, it’s also my only computer for home. I don’t want a screen smaller than 13″.

That leaves the MacBook Pro, last updated when Steve Jobs was still CEO. That might be an exaggeration, but I’m very leery of buying computers that seem to be on the verge of a big upgrade. I’m still traumatized by my purchase of an LC II back in the early 90s—it was almost immediately replaced by the LC III, which was 50% faster and cost 40% less. Curse you, 90s Apple!

Anyway, Mark Gurman says there’s a new MacBook Pro coming, which means everyone else who’s been saying there’s a new MacBook Pro coming must have been right. And he says the row of function keys across the top will be replaced by a touch-sensitive OLED strip, which means everyone else who’s been saying the row of function keys across the top will be replaced by a touch-sensitive OLED strip must have been right.

Lots of people are bemoaning this loss of real keys with tactile feedback. When I mentioned on Twitter that no one touch-types up there, I got some guff from poor, self-deluded souls who swear up and down that they do.

“I use the media playback and volume controls all the time without looking,” was the most common claim. I’m sure you do. Even I can do that, but it isn’t touch-typing, and it doesn’t need to be done without looking. Hitting the media and brightness keys is a context shift. However brief it is, or however brief you imagine it to be, it isn’t done in the flow of creation the way touch-typing is.

I’m more sympathetic to vi users3 who are worried about the loss of the Escape key. Even though switching from insert mode to command mode is, by definition, a context shift, it’s a very minor one, done in service to the overall act of writing or programming.

But I, for one, welcome our touch-sensitive OLED overlords. The flexible, fungible function strip could be a boon to user interfaces, providing both a gentle assistance to new and fearful users and a great customization tool for power users.

But there is this nagging thought in the back of my head. Can Apple pull this off? Does it still have the UX chops to figure out the right way to implement what could be a very powerful addition to the Mac? So much of what’s good about Apple products, both hardware and software, seems to be based on wise, user-centric decisions made years ago. Can it still make those decisions?

This worry is not unwarranted. Some recent versions of Apple’s Mac software—iTunes and the iWork suite, for example—have been regressions. They’ve managed to be both more confusing to average users and less powerful for advanced users.

The Apple Watch is another example. Despite the brave face put on by members of the Apple press, the lack of outright praise meant the watch wasn’t nearly what it could have been, what it should have been. This has been made even more clear by the reaction to watchOS 3. It wouldn’t seem like such a great leap forward if the earlier versions hadn’t been so backward.

On the other hand, the story of watchOS 3 is an indication that Apple still has the goods, that it can still make good decisions, even if it means reversing much-hyped earlier decisions. That’s the Apple I hope to see in the new MacBook Pro.

  1. And the screenshot is from the indispensible MacTracker app, free in both the Mac and iOS App Stores. ↩︎

  2. If you ask me to list my favorite Macs, I’ll still put the SE/30 at the top, just to keep its memory alive. But it’s a lie. ↩︎

  3. I know it’s common now to refer to these people as Vim users, not vi users, but the Escape key has been a critical part of vi use since the Bill Joy days. It’s a testament to Vim’s dominance that relatively few people even know that other versions of vi exist. ↩︎