The Touch Bar was too ahead of its time. This happens occasionally. We finally reach the point we can make a really cool idea technologically feasible but not feasible enough for widespread adoption. Think 3D TVs or augmented reality headsets. The Touch Bar, which is no longer available on any Mac sold by Apple, was like that. A really cool idea, executed pretty well, and never embraced by anyone but us diehards.
When the Touch Bar launched, it felt like touching the future. It was an OLED strip that recognized touch and replaced the function row of keys on the 2016 MacBook Pro. You could easily scrub through video and audio files in QuickTime. You could choose really pretty bookmark buttons in Safari. Preview had a whole array of useful buttons, too. The Touch Bar was itself a gorgeous set of buttons that changed depending on context, and it felt like the contextual menus of iOS brought into the physical world.
The problem was the Touch Bar never quite got out of the proof-of-concept phase, despite being in the majority of MacBook Pros made between late 2016 and 2019. And if it was going to replace the whole function row, with its easily accessible physical mute and volume buttons, it needed to be more than a proof of concept. It needed to be actually valuable.
Adobe and a handful of other companies like Pixelmator made sleek-looking attempts. But even the sleekest attempts were rarely as customizable as you’d want, and the vast majority of attempts were rudimentary at best. One of my favorite examples was looking at the way Google Chrome handled the Touch Bar versus Safari. Safari had pretty bookmarks. Chrome just replicated its normal menu but on the Touch Bar. And while someone somewhere probably found it useful to have a search bar and back button down there, most people did not.
Yet by far, the worst offender was Apple itself. The Touch Bar in Apple’s apps was often a wonder, but it only seemed to be a wonder for some Apple apps. I could jog through an entire audio file in QuickTime, but I couldn’t do the same in the native Voice Memos app where I actually created that audio file. And if I wanted to remove the Siri button, which my dumb fingers had a habit of touching hourly, I had to hunt through the System Preferences app in macOS.
Once I got there, I found that removing the Siri button was one of the few things one could actually customize about the Touch Bar. If I wanted an easy-to-access row of my favorite emoji, an app selector, or even a cool widget to consistently show me my upcoming meetings, I would struggle to do it natively. Instead, I dropped money on BetterTouchTool. And look, BetterTouchTool is a terrific application that gives you control not just over the Touch Bar but over all your macOS inputs. Yet I really don’t think I should have to drop $10 for a standard license when a lot of BetterTouchTool’s features should have been built natively into macOS.
They weren’t because the population of Touch Bar users was a lot smaller than the population of macOS users. You could only get the Touch Bar on a MacBook Pro, and it was only available on the most expensive ones. If you wanted the cheapest MacBook Pro, you’d have to make do without the Touch Bar — which meant most people made do, and most developers ignored the Touch Bar.
I like to think that we, collectively as a people, knew the Touch Bar was done when it never found its way into any other Mac. There was no full-size keyboard with an OLED strip of contextual buttons. No optional Touch Bar for the MacBook Air. Even to an avowed Touch Bar fan like myself, it was clear almost from the beginning that Apple was never interested in being serious about the feature or its potential and encouraging other developers to be serious, too. Instead, it was a selling point — rolled out in 2016 when Mac fans were in their darkest days and begging for a Mac laptop that was as nice-looking as a Dell XPS 13 and ideally featuring a processor that wasn’t at least three years old.
The Touch Bar was very much Apple replanting its design flag and declaring it cared about laptops. And now, with the M3 and a lineup of fast computers with some of the best advertised battery life around, it’s clear Apple cares about the laptop again. It doesn’t need the eye-catching Touch Bar to convince people it cares about the future of computing.