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Computers

Deny it all you want, Apple, but Macs and iPads need to fuse

Commentary: ​The future of Apple touch-screen computing can't get here fast enough. Call it an iPad Super-Pro or whatever you want, there's a gap in the lineup.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The first time I saw the Touch Bar on Apple's new MacBook Pro laptops, I thought: hey, there's a little strip of an iPad grafted onto that Mac.

Macs don't have touch. At this point, they're the outliers in the computing world. Windows and Chrome touch computers have flooded the world for years, now. There are tablets. There are phones. There are, well, the iPad and iPhone.

Apple says that the Mac and iPad probably won't combine, and that a hybrid touchscreen laptop computer isn't in the company's current plans. Instead, it seems, we have the Touch Bar.

The idea of Mac computers not having touchscreens is now so odd that my wife was surprised when I told her. No, she doesn't follow tech. But she hasn't used a Mac in years, either.

I like the idea of a Touch Bar, or at least having a more customizable keyboard and second-screen controls. I haven't used one yet. And my colleague Dan Ackerman was impressed with his brief hands-on demo of the tech earlier this week. All in all, it seems like a useful way to evolve keyboard interfaces. But the Touch Bar is small. And the Touch Bar isn't a full touch interface like a touchscreen. It feels like Apple's just dipped its toes into touch on the Mac, instead of exploring the full range of what could be.

Like, for instance, what you can do on an iPad.

That's what makes Apple's statement that the Mac and iPad will never meet even more curious. Maybe they won't. But I bet that hybrid still happens. In fact, it's already happening. And until a new iOS super-device -- or, maybe, a post-iOS super-device -- emerges to take the Mac's place, I'm not thrilled with the divide at all.

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Pencil support, anyone?

Josh Miller/CNET

Hi, meet the iPad

I've used iPads to do work. I've tried to make them do everything. I'm writing this story on an iPad Pro, and a MacBook. I alternate.

The iPad is something that's so close to a full computer, even Tim Cook beckons us to make the switch. But it's still not fully there. It does around 70 percent of what I need. The rest, due mainly to OS design and some software and hardware limitations, is a challenge.

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We're well past the time when a touchscreen of any sort should be considered cool. It's standard issue. From here on in, it's all about touch as a tool. Apple's iPad tablets and Windows PCs are useful because their entire canvas can be versatile. You can touch. Or, you can not. Sliders or palettes can be anywhere.

Microsoft is already pushing into something different: tools that interact with touch. Microsoft's new Surface Dial, a haptic metal wheel that rests on Windows displays to create an instant pop-up interface, feels like an augmented expansion of the touchscreen. Gimmicky? Maybe. But when everything's touchable, controls can be anywhere. Compare that to the Touch Bar, which is one strip, one place.

Do I think the Mac is going touch in the future? Maybe not. But I think Apple's already got the pieces to the puzzle of touch-screen computing lying right in front of us.

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The Touch Bar is the start of bringing some form of a touchscreen to the Mac.

James Martin/CNET

Why Apple's probably waiting

The iOS and MacOS operating systems remain separate beasts, year after year. I think I know why.

Apple effectively makes its own chips for iOS devices. (They are manufactured by companies such as TSMC, but custom-designed by Apple.) And they're getting more powerful every year. Good enough to replace the Intel chips used in a power professional Mac? Not yet. But there's already some anecdotal evidence that they're getting awfully close. One benchmark, as highlighted recently by Apple pundit John Gruber, suggests that the iPhone 7 ($371 at Walmart)'s A10 processor can go toe-to-toe with the Intel CPU found in the 2013 MacBook Air.

Whether the comparison is 100 percent accurate or not is almost besides the point. In the next few years, Apple's "mobile" chips look to be on target to meet or exceed Intel's computer CPUs in terms of raw processing power. At that point, the only thing holding back an iPad is software and accessories. And Apple actually is positioning it as a full-fledged Mac replacement.

A future, more powerful hybrid computer with Apple's own processors could mean more flexibility in design. Or it could mean Apple controls the future of its product even more.

The future of magic do-it-all tablets is already here...let it happen

As Apple's Craig Federighi said regarding iPads and Macs, "To attempt to bend one into the other is at its root to make a compromise." Fair enough. While a touch-based Mac is easy enough to envision from a hardware perspective, bringing its cursor-based interface along for the ride could indeed be a bridge too far. Windows did a few years ago, but at a great expense: remember the rough years of user discontent that was Windows 8.

But those "compromises" Federighi aims to avoid are already happening on the Mac, to some degree. Some people have already grumbled about the disappearance of MagSafe, or the shift to USB-C type ports that will require more dongles for now. And there's skepticism about the Touch Bar. After all, it requires app support. The iPhone's 3D Touch has taken a while to develop meaningful uses across iOS 10, and many third-party apps I use were slow to support it. Will Touch Bar be better?

Change is perpetual. I read Apple's executive comments on the Mac and how it would weaken with touch, and how the iPad shouldn't necessarily be like a Mac, and I thought...regular people can't afford two expensive, large-screen devices with an increasingly large functional overlap. I bought a laptop last year because my previous one was eight years old, and no iPad has the software underpinnings to replace the needs I have. But, I bought it for utility.

Meanwhile, iOS is the touch-friendly landscape. It's also where Apple's next-gen creative tools lie, like Pencil. But you know what? Apple can converge the two. It should.

My son recently had a birthday party where he and his friends played Minecraft. They gathered around touch laptops, touched the screens and had fun. They know how to use them because that's what they do: use touchscreens.

The iPad can be a utility device too. And if the iPad Pro can have a keyboard and a stylus, it can have a lot more. If the Mac won't evolve to accept touchscreens, then bring on the advanced iOS hardware...because my kids, and the rest of the world, are waiting. I don't care what they're called.