The Mac and iPad aren't merging. Get over it

Apple's top executives, including design chief Jony Ive, talk through the reasons why the company's computers and tablets will keep doing what they're doing, on their own.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
6 min read
Watch this: Apple debuts MacBook Pro

Sure, Apple could make software that powers both Macs and iPads.

Yes, it could put touchscreens in its laptops.

And yeah, it could make a hybrid device that's both a tablet and a notebook.

But that would be taking the easy route. At least that's according to Jony Ive, Apple's longtime chief designer.

"Doing something that's different is actually relatively easy and relatively fast, and that's tempting," says Ive. "We take a very different approach in that we genuinely want to make something that's better."

Watch this: Apple's software engineering chief tells us why there's no touchscreen Mac

Ive isn't particularly impressed by touchscreen PCs, which is why we won't see a touchscreen in the Mac. It's also why Apple won't meld Macs and iOS devices into something new, marketing chief Phil Schiller and software engineering lead Craig Federighi say in an exclusive interview before Thursday's launch of the new MacBook Pros, which start at $1,499.

Simply put, the people who helped popularize the touchscreen don't think it's how you should interact with a laptop.

Instead, they came up with something Apple calls a Touch Bar -- a multitouch display built into the top row of the MacBook Pro's keyboard. It lights up with a menu of buttons, control sliders, dials and tools, which change with the app you're using. Taking the place of function keys, the Touch Bar brings up autofill choices as you type and lets you scroll through photos or jump to your favorite websites in Safari.

"What we wanted to do was bring all this advanced technology of multitouch and Retina displays down to where your hands can take advantage of them on a laptop," Schiller says. "As far as our eye can see, there will still be a place for this basic laptop architecture."

Can't touch this

Four years ago, Microsoft's Windows 8 software enabled PC makers to build computers with touchscreens. Since then, Asus, Dell, HP and others have released all-in-one devices, like Apple's iMac but with a touchscreen. They also offer laptops that convert to tablets when you twist or snap off the keyboard.

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The MacBook Pro comes in a thinner and lighter package, and packs in faster processors and a Touch Bar strip.

James Martin/CNET

With last year's release of Windows 10, touchscreen hybrids have become mainstream. But that hasn't stopped PC shipments from declining for eight straight quarters, "the longest duration of decline in the history of the PC industry," according to research firm Gartner. That's in part because people are choosing mobile devices, like phones, over computers.

"The push for mobility is hurting PC sales," Gartner analyst Brian Blau says. "We've seen that quarter after quarter."

Microsoft claims its $899 Surface Pro tablet with a detachable keyboard and stylus and its $1,499 Surface Book have lured users away from the Mac.

On Wednesday, Microsoft unveiled a new all-in-one desktop called the Surface Studio. Think the iMac, but with a touchscreen and support for a stylus.

Last week, Microsoft reported that sales from its Surface line soared 38 percent from the previous year, to $926 million. That's a huge percentage jump compared with the half-a-percent slide in iPad revenue this quarter and a 17 percent drop in Mac sales. But even with the boost, Microsoft Surface quarterly sales hover around the $1 billion mark, well below demand for Apple's products. iPad sales this past quarter topped $4 billion, while Mac sales were over $5.7 billion.


Apple executive Phil Schiller touts the new features in the MacBook Pro.

James Martin/CNET

The Surface won over buyers in part because of Apple's delays in updating its MacBook Pro line, believes Brian Hall, corporate vice president of marketing for Microsoft devices. The last major update of the MacBook Pro was in 2012. Microsoft hopes its new, high-end Surface Book i7, unveiled Wednesday and priced at $2,399, attracts plenty of MacBook Pro users.

"Apple has definitely left their customers behind in the last four years or three years in not having updated over that period," Hall says. "At this point, Apple's really doing customers a disservice not to have an option for touch[screens] on a MacBook."

Apple disagrees. Four years ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook dissed hybrid devices by saying they're like combining a toaster and a refrigerator. But Apple also introduced the 12.9-inch iPad Pro last year, with a detachable keyboard and stylus called the Pencil, a clear sign it sees a market for people who want to work on iPads and not just use them as entertainment devices.

The company explored putting touch into a Mac but rejected that idea "many, many years ago," according to Ive. That was partly due to ergonomics. It doesn't feel natural to reach out to touch a computer screen, Apple's executives say. "That wasn't the right place for that," Ive says. "It wasn't particularly useful or an appropriate application of multitouch."

Apple MacBook Pro swaps outdated function keys for Touch Bar

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At least some MacBook fans agree with Apple. T-Pain may be best known as a rapper, but he's also a bit of a techie. He's been a MacBook Pro user for over a decade, has built his own souped-up computers since he was young and likes to try out new devices. That includes touchscreen Windows 8 laptops like the Razer Blade. T-Pain considers the touchscreen on the notebook more of "a hindrance" than anything.

"If my screen is dusty, and I'm trying to wipe it off, I click so many things," he says. "It's too much."

When CNET asks if he wants to see a touchscreen MacBook, T-Pain says, laughing, "God no. No, no, no!"

Never the twain shall meet

Add to ergonomics the fact that Apple's MacOS isn't a touch-friendly operating system, though the latest MacOS Sierra software works with the new Touch Bar. Apple has kept the software distinct from its iOS mobile software for the iPhone and iPad, though "Continuity" capabilities let the two OSes better interact, and they allow iOS features like Siri to now work on the Mac.

"What you've seen is tons of common technology shared beneath the two of them," Federighi says. "But where we differentiate is where it matters fundamentally to the user-interaction model and to that fundamental ergonomic."

Watch this: Touch Bar comes to new MacBook Pro

Because of that -- one OS uses fingers, the other a mouse and keyboard -- Apple doesn't have plans to merge its two operating systems.

"We did spend a great deal of time looking at this a number of years ago and came to the conclusion that to make the best personal computer, you can't try to turn MacOS into an iPhone," Schiller says. "Conversely, you can't turn iOS into a Mac...So each one is best at what they're meant to be -- and we take what makes sense to add from each, but without fundamentally changing them so they're compromised."

Of course, never say never with Apple.

Jobs famously trashed 7-inch tablets, saying in late 2010 that they were "too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with an iPad." Apple ended up launching the 7.9-inch iPad Mini in November 2012.

Jobs also spoke out against bigger-screen smartphones. But Apple introduced its 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus in September 2014. Those phones made Apple the most profitable company in the world.

And Jobs said your finger is the only pointer you'll need, eight years before Apple unveiled its $99 Apple Pencil as an add-on for the $799 iPad Pro.

Federighi won't say MacOS and iOS will never merge, but he does say they'll stay separate as far out as he can see, at least five to 10 years. "They have very distinct roles, because they're environments that are optimized around that core ergonomic," he says. "To attempt to bend one into the other is at its root to make a compromise."

With reporting by CNET Editor in Chief Connie Guglielmo.