Why Apple Will Never Ship a Touchscreen MacBook

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A patent recently granted to Apple has got online observers predicting a future touch-screen MacBook laptop.

It’ll never happen. Before I tell you why, let’s take a look at the evidence.

The patent, the latest in a series of patents that appear to reference touchscreen clamshell devices, was dug up by the blog Patently Apple and is for a method or approach for building microprocessor electronics directly into a touch display. It’s a way to continue the integration and miniaturization of hardware components that Apple has been aggressively pursuing in recent years.

Examples of just what sorts of devices this technology might be applied to are provided by Apple in the patent application. They include a “mobile telephone,” a “media player” and a “personal computer.” The drawing for “personal computer” is a clunky looking laptop that looks like the 9-pound Acer notebook I had in 1995. (The “mobile telephone” looks similarly dated.)

The patent drawing suggests to some that Apple is planning, or at least considering, a conventional laptop (i.e. MacBook) with an iPad-like touch display. This idea contrasts with public statements about such products by Apple executives, the most notably CEO Steve Jobs. He said:

“We’ve done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical.

It gives great demo but after a short period of time, you start to fatigue and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off. it doesn’t work, it’s ergonomically terrible.

Touch surfaces want to be horizontal, hence pads.”

Further light can be shed on the question by understanding how the patent application process works for companies like Apple. The people who invent new touch-screen technologies within Apple are not the same people who decide which form-factors to pursue and develop. Their job is to create intellectual property, and keep Apple’s options open by adding the broadest possible range of applications for the technology.

Also: The drawing of a laptop is iconic, serving the same purpose as clip art. It’s just there to represent the concept of a PC. Note that the label on that picture is “personal computer,” not “clamshell laptop” or something similar. The patent clearly covers the use of Apple’s screen technology on any device that could legally be considered a “personal computer.”

The “mobile telephone” in the drawing has a bulky antenna. That does not mean we should all predict that future iPhones will have protruding antennas. It’s just an icon. Likewise, we should not draw any conclusions from the fact that Apple choose to represent “personal computer” with a drawing of a clamshell laptop.

That’s the evidence. Now let’s engage in a thought experiment that leads to the same conclusion: that Apple will never ship a touch-screen clamshell MacBook.

If Apple were to develop a touch-screen MacBook, how would they go about it, and what would their decision-making process be? First, it would probably be small, thin and light like the MacBook Air. The touch-screen feature would have to be usable at least part-time or most of the time laying flat or sitting on a lap, simply because expecting users to always be reaching out to touch the screen is too awkward and inelegant for an Apple product.

The Microsoft Tablet PC space has pioneered several methods for doing this. One of these is a hinge at the middle of the back that enables the user to twist the top lid around and fold it down over the keyboard, screen-side up. Another is for the clamshell to open all the way around, so when you use it the keyboard faces down. And yet another rare method is for the screen to spin around inside the lid, so that when the lid closes the screen faces up.

None of these methods sound to me like something Apple would do. The company is constantly reducing the number of moving parts and mechanical complexity. Plus, such form factors add bulk and weight, which is the opposite direction Apple is constantly pushing its mobile product line.

The elegant Apple approach would be build all electronics into the lid, and make the keyboard separate. This is even the default approach for Apple’s biggest desktop computers. It would certainly make a lot of sense for a thin, light mobile computer.

See the problem here? That’s not a touch-screen MacBook. That’s an OS X iPad.

And that’s exactly where I think Apple is going to take its mobile line. Of course, I think Apple will continue to sell a line of clamshell MacBook devices that do not have touch screens. But I also think it’s inevitable that Apple will add to that line an “iPad Pro” line that runs full-fledged OS X and runs desktop applications.

Because these OS X iPads will run the same operating system as Apple’s desktop computers, they would be considered by the courts to be “personal computers” and therefore covered in the recently granted patent, regardless of what the sketch shows.

The recent patent application neither supports nor invalidates my prediction. But they also don’t support the idea that Apple will ship a touchscreen MacBook. Jobs has made a convincing case for why the use of touch screens on a vertical surface makes no sense. The company is transforming how we use computers with its iPad.

All trends point to a future line of OS X iPads, and away from the idea of touchscreen MacBooks.