Apple has patents for virtual keyboards on MacBooks dating back as far as 2009, but a continuation patent application published today shows that the company is still exploring the idea.

A virtual keyboard was of course a headline feature of the iPhone when it was launched in 2007, and Apple also introduced the feature to the latest MacBook Pro models in the form of the Touch BarPatently Apple illustrated the patent using a Lenovo Yoga Book, showing what is in effect a giant Touch Bar replacing a physical keyboard.

If the idea fills you with horror, as it does me, we may not need to worry too much …

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Those of us who use our MacBooks predominantly for writing or coding would have a terrible user experience were Apple to replace a moving keyboard with a screen-based one. It’s extremely unlikely that Apple would take this approach across all models, even if it were to use it for one or more.

The company has also shown interest in mechanical dynamic keyboards, such as the Apple-like Sonder e-ink keyboard. This is a Magic Keyboard style device with each keycap being a tiny e-ink display that can dynamically adjust to different languages and other specialist functions. Crucially, you still get real keyboard movement.

There are also more sophisticated dynamic key systems such as that used in Elgato’s Stream Deck, in which each moving key has a full-color LCD display. This is available today.

Patently Apple notes that what Apple may have in mind for this particular patent is more of an iPad-style device.

The secret to this invention is that it also oddly covers tablets […] Technically it could be some kind of hybrid device […] This past February, an Apple patent application covered an iPad Pro smart cover that supported a new virtual keyboard. So it’s evident that Apple is coming at this project from many angles.

I’ve argued before that I’m pretty sure that Apple’s long-term plan is for MacBooks to have some form of dynamic keyboard. The ability to have a keyboard adapt to each app would be of huge benefit, as demonstrated by the market for keyboard overlays and dedicated keyboards for pro apps. Apple’s inclusion of the Touch Bar in the latest MacBook Pro models is evidence that Apple understands the appeal.

But while it may have made moves to reduce the movement in MacBook keyboards, I don’t see it abandoning the physical form factor in its mainstream laptops – not for as long as typing remains a key input method.


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