Much to my surprise my piece on the Touch Bar went viral and got widely distributed including a stint on Hacker News as well as Techmeme. 40,000 views later (and counting), it was a weekend with a lot of interesting and constructive feedback.
That made me realize there’s a bit more to say about the Touch Bar, so I thought I’d pull my thoughts together here.
Where Apple might be going with all of this
If you look at the cost differences between the non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro and the Touch Bar versions, there seems to be about a $200 price difference for roughly equivalent models. For the sake of simplifying the discussion, let’s set the price for this system to be $200.
That’s not the cost of the Touch Bar, however. That entire subsystem breaks down roughly into three pieces: The Secure Enclave unit, the TouchID sensor, and the Touch Bar itself. From the looks of it, most of the cost is in the Secure Enclave system itself.
Give that cost breakdown, we can make some assumptions. If we assume that Apple is committed to using the Secure Enclave in Macs to enable user authentication and to secure Apple Pay, I think it’s okay to assume Apple will be including it in most, if not all, future Macs. If that’s true, then the economics of the Touch Bar are minimal.
The future of TouchID
When Apple released the MacBook pros with the Touch Bar last fall, one thing I didn’t really understand was why they spent so much time talking about the Touch Bar and mostly ignored the TouchID sensor. I’ve found my usage almost opposite to how much time they spent on the features, with the TouchID sensor being what I really cared about.
This spring when they announced the iMacs, some of us expected (well, hoped for) updated keyboards with the TouchID sensor and a Touch Bar in them, and I was disappointed when that didn’t happen.
I think I’m starting to understand why this all happened the way it did.
One of the rumored features in the iPhones due to be announced in a couple of weeks is a replacement of TouchID with a new facial recognition system, likely using infrared sensors. This makes me think the TouchID was always seen as a transitional technology to enable Apple Pay and access authentication until their preferred technology was ready for prime time.
With the iPhone 8, it looks like that new technology is here. And if this is true, that explains at least in part why the TouchID sensor was downplayed in last fall’s announcements (don’t want to oversell something they know is going away) and why we don’t have a Touch Bar keyboard. It made no sense to build that product since a year later it would be replaced.
If I’m right, future Macs will use the infrared facial recognition, and they can embed those sensors in the bezel of the monitor on both the iMac and the laptops. This simplifies the problem of needing to secure the communication between the sensor and the Secure Enclave; by moving those sensors into the device and off the keyboard, everything gets a lot cleaner. And they can build a much less expensive keyboard with a Touch Bar on it that doesn’t require the level of communication security that would be required if it also had the TouchID sensor.
That feels like a very Apple solution. The authentication sensors are on the device and secure, the keyboard technology is kept simple, and the cost of adding a Touch Bar to it without TouchID is small.
Unclear is how Apple can (or if it will) support facial recognition for users with closed laptops attached to external monitors; I’ve been mulling over some kind of iSight type device, but it seems to have the same security challenges a TouchID sensor on a keyboard has, so I’m not sure whether Apple will have a solution for that.
Don’t forget the watch…
One thing to remember here: maybe the answer isn’t the Secure Enclave and infrared sensors or TouchID. If you’ve ever used Apple Pay on the web with authentication through your phone/watch you see another way to do most or all of these authentication problems. We already have Mac support for account unlock via the Watch, for instance, which I find works quite well.
Apple has options here, and all of them look fascinating.
The future of the Touch Bar
One of the challenges of Apple is that it plays a long game with its product releases where you look back across a couple of years and can see how things all tie together, but as critics, users, and reviewers of their products our tendency is to think about what’s happening now and make snap judgements about things.
That’s why I’m curious about what Apple does with Touch Bar over the next year or so. Think about the difference between WatchOS 1 and WatchOS 2, for instance.
Will Apple downplay or remove the Touch Bar because reaction to the first generation was so muted? Is there a second generation Touch Bar coming that’ll blow us away? Will it stick around as a niche technology on some products but not rolled out to all Macs?
I don’t know. But I can make some guesses.
The next year of the Mac
If I’m right, the next generation of Macs will have the Secure Enclave and will take advantage of both Apple Watch/IOS and the new infrared facial recognition. I also think we’ll see an updated keyboard that includes a Touch Bar.
It looks this is another case of Apple playing a long game with their technologies that only in retrospect are we starting to understand. TouchID seems to be a transitional technology, but I think it has little or not future once the facial authentication arrives. And not surprisingly, that technology was built to show up first in Apple’s flagship product, the iPhone, and we’ll see it roll out across the other products and platforms over the next year or so.
I still think the Touch Bar has a lot of upside, but I think it needs to be available across the entire Mac platform for developers to invest in it and make it what it could be. But if Apple had released a keyboard with a Touch Bar AND TouchID, then a year later replaced it with the infrared sensors and a new keyboard with a Touch Bar but no TouchID sensor, it would have confused users, complicated it’s life a lot and complicated its developers lives as well, all for supporting a transitional technology for one year.
Which makes no sense, when you think about it that way.