Apple's event today was just as interesting for its social message as much as technological one.The promise that technology offers is utterly transcendent. The tools that we create overcome our limitations and allow us to express who we are- our ideals, our values, our thoughts and dreams. This promise and power are no more pronounced than in the power contained within the computer. More than any other invention in human history, with the possible exception of the written word itself, the computer offers us a way to overcome our physical and mental limitations and create worlds we can scarcely imagine. One of the defining trends in the Information Technology industry is the constant drive to make computers, and so the power they offer, more accessible to an ever-wider cross-section of humanity. It is noteworthy then that the two leading suppliers of computing technology in the world, Apple and Microsoft, both introduced their latest product launches with a celebration of the accessibility of their offerings, and of the people they empower. It’s a great reminder to us who work in the industry of why what we do matters. I encourage you to watch these short films. They’re wonderful and inspiring. Apple’s is here and Microsoft’s is here
Apple, as a company, has always been a little different. Their approach to solving problems is somewhat unconventional when compared to their more traditional rivals. Apple proved this again today with the launch of the MacBook Pro. The previous generation of MacBook Pro had a difficult birth, falling victim to Intel’s delays in processor development and then proceeding un-updated as its more tactile cousins sped ahead in development. At last, the Mac and macOS have recaptured Apple’s focus and have been treated to a helping of the innovation that has been lavished on iPad and iPhone.
The Macintosh team has reinvented the contextual menu on the new MacBook Pro by replacing the row of function keys at the top of the keyboard with a Retina-quality multi-touch strip that displays contextual commands within easy reach. Moreover, not only do contextual commands appear dynamically for applications that have been designed for them, the user can also define custom commands which match their workflows. Software powerhouses such as Adobe, with their signature Photoshop, and frenemy Microsoft with their Office suite have already embraced the touch bar, with more sure to follow.
As it first appeared on the presentation I was sceptical of this new input method, however watching the demonstrations I realised that the Touch Bar is entirely in keeping with Apple’s philosophy of human-computer interface design. Apple’s techno-sages, stretching back to Steve Jobs, have opined time and again that the vertical displays found on laptops and desktops are no place for touch. Pointing in mid-air with no tactile feedback is inaccurate, unergonomic and uncomfortable, they say. And yet, touch interfaces have dramatically expanded and enriched our interaction with computing devices. This produces a conundrum- how do we take advantage of the power of touch in a way that makes sense on a general-purpose computer?
Apple’s answer is to keep the user interface in the horizontal plane whilst more tightly integrating it with the vertical display. From watching the demos this appears to lead to a more physically engaging interaction with the computer that works with the natural fall of our hands and readily allows the development of muscle memory for often-repeated tasks. It will be interesting to follow Apple’s development of this new UI mechanism. I expect that we will see a new line of Touch Bar keyboards for the desktop Macs in due course, and perhaps the evolution of the trackpad into a similarly dynamic multi-touch display. It will be a fascinating journey.
As you’d expect with such a radical redesign there are other developments too. TouchID, now a familiar part of the iOS device family, has now come to the Mac, along with its Secure Enclave technology. The MacBook Pro has had a much-needed upgrade to its processor and now sports the modern Intel 6th-gen Skylake series. The 13-inch notebook comes equipped with Intel’s Iris graphics system, whilst the 15-inch model boasts AMD’s Radeon 450 or 455 discrete graphics chipset. The Retina display has been given increased brightness and a wider colour gamut, and the speakers have also been improved. All the ports on the new MacBook Pro are now Thunderbolt-3, which uses the USB-C form factor. This means that every port can be a charging port, display port or USB port, with the appropriate adaptors.
We have also seen a shakeup in the MacBook model lineup. The 2012 model MacBook Pro has been sent into a well-earned retirement, as has the 11-inch MacBook Air. The 13-Inch MacBook Air with its 5th-Gen processors is larger than the new 13-Inch MacBook Pro, and so has moved into the entry-level slot in the range. As already mentioned, the 13- and 15-inch models with their shiny new Touch Bars replace their older brethren and are joined by a 13-inch model equipped with a traditional keyboard. Apple’s pro video editing apps, Final Cut X, Motion and Compressor, also received an update that takes advantage of the new Touch Bar technology. They come as a free upgrade for existing users.
One announcement that seemed oddly out of place, but welcome none the less, was the launch of the TV app for iOS. Coming on the heels of the Home app, which brings all your HomeKit-enabled smart home products together, the TV app does the same for your streaming media apps. It collates and makes accessible to Siri Netflix, Hulu and a variety of other disparate content providers. I will be interested to see if it also integrates Australian catch-up TV apps from the free to air networks.