How the MacBook Pro’s Magic Toolbar can cast a spell on the world

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MacBook Pro
The Magic Toolbar will change depending on the app being used.
Illustration: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Apple faces a serious challenge when it rolls out the rumored OLED “Magic Toolbar” on new MacBook Pros tomorrow: It must convince the world that the new adaptive touchpad is more than a gimmick.

Offering customizable function keys that work in different ways depending on which apps are running, the Magic Toolbar could make the new MacBook Pro one of Apple’s most exciting laptops in years.

But to be more than a gimmick, the Magic Toolbar needs to improve the way we interact with our Macs, not simply add another confusing control element to the laptops. The Magic Toolbar needs to make it easier to perform tasks that we now do using keyboard shortcuts or on-screen toolbars. If it can’t do that, the Magic Toolbar will go down in the history books as a failure.

Luckily, there’s one simple step Apple can take to ensure that the Magic Toolbar becomes a success.

The challenge of the Magic Toolbar

Apple certainly is not afraid to make big changes. “We’ve never been afraid to eat our own babies,” is how one Apple engineer once memorably phrased it to me.

The main problem here is that Apple can’t fundamentally alter the way macOS Sierra works when only a tiny percentage of Mac users will have access to the Magic Toolbar.

That means that, like 3D Touch on the iPhone 6s and 7, the Magic Toolbar and its associated functionality must remain a “nice to have” extra for a while. It can’t become a core part of the Mac experience until Apple can assume everyone running the latest operating system will have the hardware.

By extension, that means Apple can’t simplify the on-screen Mac controls by, for instance, simplifying menus until it can be sure everybody is using a Magic Toolbar. (Adding a Magic Toolbar to Apple’s wireless Magic Keyboard could help.)

What Apple can do right out of the gate is to demonstrate that the Magic Toolbar is such a good idea as a productivity tool that it will sell devices based on its existence alone. Like the Apple Pencil (which, for my money, is the smartest peripheral released in years), it needs to sit on top of the existing interface — while also being so undeniably useful that other people wonder how they manage without it.

How can Apple achieve this? It needs to open up the Magic Toolbar to developers.

What Mac developers want from Magic Toolbar

For this article, I reached out to more than a dozen top Mac app developers. Many wanted to wait until they saw what Apple announced before discussing their hopes for the Magic Toolbar, but everybody hoped Apple would open up the new hardware to developers.

“I think ideas around using the toolbar for ‘notifications’ opens up a lot of interesting possibilities,” said Rishi Modha, director of FIPLAB, maker of best-selling Mac apps Disk Aid, Memory Clean 2 and Duplicate Detective. “We make a lot of menu bar-based applications — Battery Health, Go for Gmail, Shortcut Bar, Memory Clean — and the Magic Toolbar could be an interesting way to extend that functionality. We definitely will be one of the first developers to take advantage of the Magic Toolbar, assuming Apple gives access to the APIs.”

Modha isn’t alone. Several developers described the way they hoped to make their software more powerful using the Magic Toolbar.

“Developers could place a set of controls there to perform often-used, context-specific operations,” said Eugene Krupnov, creator of the Unclutter app, which aims to bring order to your Mac desktop. “For Unclutter, that could be creating a new note, picking a clip to paste from Clipboard History, sharing, removing or other operations for selected files. I could also place controls to manage which panels to have in Unclutter window.”

Magic Toolbar: Open at launch?

Will Apple open up the Magic Toolbar to developers at launch? A few years ago, I would have said there’s no chance. It’s easy to imagine Steve Jobs breaking out in a sweat at the thought of giving developers the freedom to add custom keys of their own design to Mac keyboards.

Today, it seems a lot more likely. Apple is undoubtedly more developer-friendly than it’s been in years, as can be seen in everything from its opening up of Siri to devs to custom keyboards on iOS. If Apple will allow custom keyboards on iOS — which makes up around 70 percent of Apple revenue — why wouldn’t it do the same on Macs, which make up just 12 percent?

Either way, we’ll get our answer tomorrow — but it’s hard to imagine this working properly if Apple doesn’t give third-party apps the ability to customize their keyboards.

Magic Toolbar: Gateway to augmented reality?

The Magic Toolbar could be a baby step toward augmented reality.
The Magic Toolbar could be a baby step toward augmented reality.
Illustration: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Krupnov suggested another intriguing idea about the Magic Toolbar and where it might take the Mac.

“The more I think about this Magic Toolbar, the more it seems to me as a small attempt to make a step towards some extended controls functionality just before we get augmented reality with any type of toolbars and controls available,” he said.

Tim Cook has made no secret of his admiration for AR.

“My own view is that augmented reality is [going to be bigger than virtual reality] — probably by far — because this gives the capability for both of us to sit and be very present talking to each other, but also have other things visually for both of us to see,” he said in a recent interview with Good Morning America.

Apple AR: Going beyond Pokémon Go

While he could certainly be talking about hit apps like Pokémon Go, it’s more likely that Apple’s AR gambit will involve productivity apps.

Apple has been working on this for a while. In 2011, Apple filed a patent application for a mapping app that, like Pokémon Go, would let users survey their surroundings through the iPhone’s iSight camera. Then the app would overlay information, such as street names, to provide context to the imagery.

Since then, the company has investigated Kinect-style user interfaces that would enable physical gestures to control computer interface elements.

Will the Magic Toolbar put us on the path to these kind of interfaces? Will it help get us used to interacting with our Macs in a whole new way?

We won’t know for some time yet. The Magic Toolbar packs plenty of potential. The real question is, will Apple be bold enough to give developers the power to make it a hit?