In an opinion piece a couple of weeks ago, I described the way I hope the rumored touch-panel will be used: dynamic content available to app developers to create one-touch shortcuts. Effectively you’d get similar benefits to a physical keyboard skin but for every app. Check out that piece first if you haven’t already read it so I don’t need to repeat the same points here.
Of course, there are potential downsides to that too. At present, I’m used to being able to adjust the volume or play/pause music, for example, just by pressing a key. My fingers know where those keys are, so it’s very easy to do. If the standard functions were overwritten by apps, it would become a fiddlier process to do things we currently take for granted.
So here are a few thoughts about how Apple might give us the best of both worlds – and the somewhat provocative view that the touch-panel might still be a good thing even if it turns out to be nothing more than a gimmick …
First, it could be as simple as the touch-panel displaying standard functions when you’re in the Finder, and app-specific shortcuts when you’re in an app.
This would, I think, be surprisingly usable when not using full-screen apps. For example, right now, while writing this in Chrome, I could click anywhere on my desktop, start the music and then click back into Chrome. Ok, slightly fiddlier than just hitting the key directly, but not a bad trade-off, I would say, for the benefits provided by one-touch app shortcuts.
But that doesn’t work in full-screen apps, so a better approach would be to have the Shift key switch between functions. That would be faster and easier. When we hold down the key, the labels change so we can see what we’re doing, whether using the app shortcuts or the standard OS X functions.
Ideally, we’d be able to toggle the default state: in one setting, the standard functions are displayed by default and we hold down Shift to access app shortcuts; in the other we get the app shortcuts by default and hit Shift for the OS X ones.
Better yet is an idea Seth had when we were discussing it: swipe left or right to switch between the two. In that way, you can leave them as standard function keys most of the time but swipe right if you’re in an app where you want to use its shortcuts instead. Simply swipe left again to access the normal functions. If you don’t want app shortcuts, no need to ever see them.
The icing on the cake would be OS X remembering our preferences for each app. If I swipe right to access Lightroom shortcuts, for example, OS X would automatically switch to these each time I open Lightroom.
But there is another possibility. One I hope won’t be the case, but can’t entirely bring myself to dismiss: it could be mostly a gimmick. It may be that it will be nothing more than a touch-sensitive set of standard function keys plus a bit of bling. The bling could include the Siri animation one reader illustrated (top image), or notifications as suggested by another.
Sure, Apple has mostly avoided bling in its designs, but gold MacBooks and pink devices show that it is not entirely above such things if it’s what consumers want.
That would be a huge missed opportunity, but I think it would still be better than nothing, for one simple reason: mass-market consumers like gimmicks, and it would likely boost sales of the MacBook Pro range.
We have to remember that Apple is a consumer electronics company now, with the emphasis on ‘consumer.’ Professional users are in a minority. For every MacBook owner using it in their business, there are a hundred others using it as an expensive way to surf the web or write a novel in Starbucks. Anything which increases the appeal of the MacBook Pro line among consumers is a good thing for those of us who actually need a pro machine because it gives Apple a reason to keep making them.
So even if the touch-panel turns out to be disappointing as a feature, we should probably still be glad that it’s there.
Speaking of professional users, a significant number use their MacBook Pro with an external monitor, keyboard and trackpad or mouse. Once you’ve got used to the touch-panel, you’re going to want it on your desk too, so I’d say there’s a reasonable chance the feature could make it to a future Magic Keyboard too.
What would be your preference for the operation of the touch-panel? Take our poll, and please share your thoughts in the comment.