Jony Ive talks about putting the Apple ‘touch’ on the MacBook Pro

Apple’s longtime chief design officer gives us his exclusive take on the Touch Bar he says is “just the beginning of a very interesting direction.” Here’s how they got started.

by Connie Guglielmo / October 28, 2016

J

ony Ive says thinking different is actually pretty easy.

I’m momentarily taken aback, given that Ive, Apple’s chief design officer since 1996, works at a company that’s long prided itself on its “think different” approach to everything from products and marketing to retail stores and watchbands.

“Doing something that’s different is actually relatively easy and relatively fast, and that’s tempting,” says the man who’s had a hand in every major Apple product design — from the colorful iMac and iBook to the iPod, iPad, iPhone and Apple Watch.

“We don’t limit ourselves in how we will push — if it’s to a better place. What we won’t do is just do something different that’s no better,” Ive said in an interview earlier this week to explain the design of the MacBook Pro, a major reboot of Apple’s most powerful laptop line.

That thinking explains why Apple “many, many years ago” decided against adding touchscreens to the Mac, even as rivals dressed up Windows tablets and PCs with multitouch displays. Instead, after two years of tinkering with larger touchpads and other approaches he won’t reveal, Ive and his team came up with a slim, multitouch strip that replaces the function keys at the top of your keyboard. That OLED display lights up to serve a changing menu of buttons, control sliders, dials, tools and even emojis that change depending on the app you’re using.

Apple calls it simply the “Touch Bar.” It was unveiled Thursday and is built into new 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros that go on sale in November.

Ive, who holds over 5,000 patents, spoke with CNET News Editor in Chief Connie Guglielmo about why the Touch Bar is just “the beginning of a very interesting direction” for Apple. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.

The Touch Bar is an unusual way of interacting with a computer. Why a touch strip?

There’s a number of designs that we explored that conceptually make sense. But then when we lived on them for a while, sort of pragmatically and day to day, [they] are sometimes less compelling. This is something [we] lived on for quite a while before we did any of the prototypes. You really notice or become aware [of] something’s value when you switch back to a more traditional keyboard.

What were you trying to accomplish?

Our starting point, from the design team’s point of view, was recognizing the value with both input methodologies. But also there are so many inputs from a traditional keyboard that are buried a couple of layers in. We have that ability to accommodate complex inputs, mainly out of habit and familiarity.

So our point of departure was to see if there was a way of designing a new input that really could be the best of both of those different worlds. To be able to have something that was contextually specific and adaptable, and also something that was mechanical and fixed, because there’s truly value in also having a predictable and complete set of fixed input mechanisms.

Clearly, the function row seemed a good opportunity to explore.

As has always been the way, we develop designs as quickly as we possibly can. This is a particularly difficult prototype because it required a fairly mature software environment, and a fairly mature and sophisticated hardware prototype, to really be able to figure out whether these ideas were valuable or not. One of the things that remains quite a big challenge for us is that you have to prototype to a sufficiently sophisticated level to really figure out whether you’re considering the idea, or whether what you’re really doing is evaluating how effective a prototype is.

You say you needed advanced software and hardware before you even considered a prototype. How long has this been in the making?

I would guess that probably two years ago we had a pretty good prototype that wasn’t product specific. It was exploring this idea of larger, haptic-rich trackpads — what you now see as the Touch Bar combined with a keyboard. It certainly didn’t look particularly well resolved, but it created an environment where you could start to see: Is this as useful and is this as compelling as we conceptually think it should be?

This was an area of combining touch and display-based inputs with a mechanical keyboard. That was the focus. We unanimously were very compelled by [the Touch Bar] as a direction, based on, one, using it, and also having the sense this is the beginning of a very interesting direction. But [it] still just marks a beginning.

You sort of change your hat, because you have to figure out how do you then productize it, and develop the idea, and resolve and refine to make it applicable to a specific product. To do that in the context of the MacBook Pro — while at the same time you’re trying to make it thinner, lighter and more powerful — the last thing you want to do is burden it with an input direction that now has a whole bunch of challenges specific to something like touch.

You can become fairly comfortable that you have a design direction that’s compelling. But if you can’t work out how you can refine that [without] compromising the final product, you can still undermine a big idea.

From a design perspective, how do you decide what goes into a MacBook Pro versus other mobile devices?

Input and output are so defining to products. We know this is an extraordinarily important and powerful product attribute [and] product feature, theoretically. Once we prove that to ourselves as much as possible, we still have to understand that, if it compromises the ultimate product, there’s a point at which it’s no longer appropriate or valuable.

It was a curiously different effort between thinking about the original idea and exploring and experimenting with the original idea, and then working out how [to] make it valuable to a specific product. They are different types of efforts, but we are very much focused on the final product.

What’s your philosophy when it comes to designing for the Mac, the iPads and iPhones? How do you approach each?

I feel very strongly that you cannot separate form from material, from the process that forms the material. Those have to be developed incredibly coherently and together. Which means that you can’t design in a way that’s disconnected from how you make [a product]. So that’s one important relationship.

We spent huge amounts of time just [on] material exploration. We explore a whole range of different materials, a whole range of different processes. I think you’ll be surprised at how sophisticated the conclusions we would take those explorations to.

Like what? Can you give me an example?

No.

But that’s been the way we work as a team the last 20, 25 years, [and] this is the most refined example of it. We’re taking solid aluminum, the aluminum alloys we’ve been developing ourselves, in processes that basically take the machining of this billet down into these different case parts we’ve been developing for years.

The degree of dramatic changes in terms of just the architecture and the use of these materials, we’ve been working on for years. We continually try and refine better solutions. But it’s interesting that we’ve not been able to do something that’s better than the current [Mac] architecture.

As a team, and as a core Apple philosophy, we could do something that was dramatically different, but it’s not better.

Mac users are tied emotionally to their devices and have a certain set of expectations. Does that factor into your thinking about how far to push it?

We don’t limit ourselves in how we will push — if it’s to a better place. What we won’t do is just do something different that’s no better.

I’ve talked about this before, and Apple has talked about this before: Doing something that’s different is actually relatively easy and relatively fast, and that’s tempting.

How do you and your team decide something is worth changing?

There’s often an underappreciated value about longevity as a team — when you learn in community, when you learn as a group. [There’s a] momentum you enjoy based on common understanding and common learning as you move from one project to the next. You really benefit from all of the struggles, all of the challenges from one project, to help enable the next.

There is just no way that you could bring the current MacBook Pro to market if you hadn’t gone through the prior products. Each one absolutely required the learning of the previous.

You say different would be easy and fast. Is that why we’re not seeing a touchscreen-based MacBook Pro? That would have been an easy choice. Or was it something other PC makers have done and you wanted to go in a different direction?

When we were exploring multitouch many, many years ago, we were trying to understand the appropriate application and opportunities for [it]. We just didn’t feel that [the Mac] was the right place for that…. It wasn’t particularly useful or an appropriate application of multitouch.

Because?

For a bunch of practical reasons. It’s difficult to talk [laughs] without going into a lot of details that puts me starting to talk about things that we are working on. I don’t really want to talk much more about it.

About the Authors

Connie Guglielmo


Connie Guglielmo is editor in chief of CNET News and is responsible for overseeing a global team that covers breaking stories and also delivers analyses and features. She's a veteran tech reporter and editor who has worked in and around Silicon Valley for MacWeek, Wired, Upside, Interactive Week, Bloomberg News and Forbes.

Credits

Editorial
Connie Guglielmo
Shara Tibken
Rochelle Garner

Design
Mark Hobbs
Marc Mendell

Photography / Video
James Martin

Production
Justin Cauchon
Jeremy Toeman

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