Should Apple give iPhone 8 a mini Touch Bar? [Friday Night Fights]


FNF iPhone 8
Wouldn't you want an iPhone like this?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

The jury’s still out on whether the MacBook Pro’s new Touch Bar is a useful upgrade or a fancy gimmick. But according to recent rumors, Apple is already planning to bring similar functionality to this year’s iPhone 8.

Friday Night Fights bugTo make this happen, the company would almost certainly have to drop Touch ID. Would a mini Touch Bar be worth the sacrifice, or would contextual shortcuts and buttons make iOS more complicated than it needs to be?

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight as we discuss whether a Touch Bar would be a useful addition to the iPhone!

Killian Bell FNFKillian Bell: I think a mini Touch Bar would be an excellent addition to Apple’s next-generation iPhone. I’m a big fan of the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, and I think a similar feature would be even more useful on a smartphone.

Apple is one of a few handset makers still using a physical Home button. It’s good — especially with Touch ID — but there’s only so much you can do with it. A mini Touch Bar with virtual buttons could be infinitely more useful, with useful shortcuts adapted to the apps you’re using, notifications that don’t distract you from what you’re doing on the primary display, and plenty more.

You’ve said you don’t really see the point of the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro. Do you feel the same way about a similar feature on iPhone?

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke Dormehl: I think the MacBook Pro was a massive missed opportunity for Apple and I’d be highly surprised if we see the Touch Bar hang around for the next five to 10 years of Apple laptops. It’s gimmicky. And I don’t think it offers a single use-case that can’t already be achieved just as easily using keyboard shortcuts or on-screen commands. Worse, unlike those two interface elements, a person using the Touch Bar constantly has to look away from what they’re doing to select the right button to press. An interface device that draws that kind of conscious attention to itself, rather than being seamless, is just clumsy.

That last problem would at least be addressed on the iPhone, since it would simply be an extension of the display. But I’m unsure of the uses for such a feature. Name one scenario this would be useful for that can’t already be incorporated into existing apps in a less obtrusive way.

Ultimately, though, my problem with it is only if Apple ditches the use of a fingerprint sensor for a Touch Bar. I don’t think that will happen, but when we spoke earlier this week about the idea that Apple could do away with Touch ID (which I said would be terrible), you seemed to think it was fine — and that it could easily be replaced by the rumored iris-scanning tools.

Killian Bell FNFKillian: I disagree completely. Developers have been scrambling to make their apps Touch Bar-compatible, which in turn makes the feature even more useful. It’s here to stay, and I have no doubt it will eventually make its way into other Apple laptops like the 12-inch MacBook, as well as a future version of the Magic Keyboard.

With the iPhone, a Touch Bar could be used for all manner of things. Just like on the MacBook, it could provide handy shortcuts that don’t clutter the primary display, and additional controls that can’t be squeezed into a standard interface. It could be used to display special characters and emoji while typing, so you don’t have to keep switching keyboards. And just think how useful it would be in games; developers could use it for controls in platformers and runners so that our hands don’t get in the way of the action while we’re playing.

As for the removal of the Home button, I’m sure Apple will have a suitable solution for that. I don’t think it would think about taking away Touch ID without providing another seamless security option — whether that’s an iris scanner, lasers that recognize your face, or a fingerprint reader embedded beneath the glass.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: So you’re essentially saying that Apple gets rid of its iconic Home button, allowing it to expand the amount of screen real estate you have at your disposal, so it can fill the space with extra virtual buttons? No thanks.

Killian Bell FNFKillian: I’m glad your opinion will have zero influence on what Apple decides to do with the iPhone 8. You don’t think a mini Touch Bar should come to iPhone, but you can’t explain to me why it would be a terrible idea. It seems like you don’t have an argument here — just some kind of personal vendetta against the whole idea of the Touch Bar for no apparent reason.

Let’s assume Apple can embed a fingerprint reader beneath the glass somewhere. Why shouldn’t it ditch the physical home button that has hardly any flexibility in favor of virtual buttons that can be adapted to your apps?

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: Ha! I’d hardly call it a vendetta. I don’t understand what it would add that would have a positive impact on the iPhone user experience. If Apple can find a way to embed a fingerprint sensor under the glass on the iPhone, I’m all for it. Personally I preferred the physical Home button before Apple decided to replace it with a haptic feedback button for the newer iPhones but I understand why it did it from a repairability perspective.

My issue is the exact problem that Steve Jobs highlighted with physical keyboards on smartphones back when the iPhone debuted: they’re there all the time whether you need them or not. If Apple is going to make a big feature of the Touch Bar it would have to be an omnipresent part of the display. Why? The kind of apps which do so well on iOS simply don’t have any need of controls that are there all the time. As I mentioned, the upshot would be that Apple expands the size of the iPhone display (without necessarily having to increase the physical size of the device, which is a good thing) and then adds in a confusing extra level of controls that no-one asked for.

I’m genuinely confused as to what good you see coming from this!

Killian Bell FNFKillian: You’re totally contradicting yourself here. As you rightly point out, iOS apps don’t need a standard set of controls that are there all the time. That’s exactly why a physical Home button that can only offer a small number of functions is wasting space. A mini Touch Bar could display controls that adapt to what you’re doing — just like Jobs wanted when he chose a touch screen over a physical keyboard for the iPhone.

I’ve already mentioned some of the things Apple and developers could do that would make a mini Touch Bar useful — and they’re all completely valid examples that could improve the user experience on iPhone. To suggest that these functions and shortcuts might confuse people is pretty insulting to iPhone users. Why would they be any more confusing than the virtual buttons we’re already using in iOS apps?

And no one asked for it? Have you seen how excited people are getting over this rumor?

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: Of course it’s not a contradiction. My point is very simple: that expanding the screen real estate is a good thing, but that nullifying that with a line of “always there” shortcuts is pointless. It’s fixing a problem that didn’t exist. People are going to talk about any new rumor which changes the look of the iPhone, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. I have yet to hear anyone raving (or, to be honest, even talking) about the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar as a game changer, and I can’t see that adding an equivalent to the iPhone — where space is far more at a premium — is going to be a good move either.

But let’s turn this one over to readers. Would you like to see Apple scrap the physical Home button for a larger display and Touch Bar? Leave your comments below. And have a great weekend.

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?