Will We Ever See a Multi-Touch Mac?

In the past few years Apple’s core strategy and media coverage seem to have taken a shift from desktop computers and software suites like iLife towards the newer and more exciting field of touch-screen computing.

The iPod Nano, iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad together are a perfect picture of how much time, money and effort Apple is sinking into their new favorite technology. Since the day Apple released the iPhone, we all started dreaming about multi-touch in a place Apple hasn’t yet delivered: on our Macs.

If you’ve ever sat down with an iPad for more than ten minutes you almost can’t help but admit that the basic experience is something well beyond that of our beloved Magic Mice and Magic Trackpads, which give only a hint of what a multi-touch Mac would be like.

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Fantasy or near-future?

Overcoming Problems and Priming the Market

Even if Apple releases a multi-touch iMac as soon as tomorrow, they wouldn’t be the first PC manufacturer to do so, just like they weren’t the first to create a touch-screen phone or e-reader. However, as with the iPhone and iPad, if and when Apple jumps into this game, it’s going to represent a major paradigm shift in personal computing that the rest of the industry will have to keep up with.

So why doesn’t Apple just do it already? Where’s my multi-touch iMac!? One thing that Apple is obviously not doing is rushing such a device to the market. Apple generally has two primary objectives in breaking new ground. First, they want to overcome the inherent problems with touch-screen PCs. Next, they want to prime the market and maximize demand before they release the product.

The Problems

First of all, there’s the issue of software. OS X simply wasn’t built for multi-touch. Sure, Apple could throw together a sloppy hack and overlay some touch interaction, but sloppy isn’t their forte. Instead, you can bet they’ll have a significantly overhauled operating system that will either be the most drastic change to OS X we’ve seen yet or a completely new operating system. Either way, they’ll have to completely redesign the way we interact with our Macs.

Likewise, hardware presents a significant problem. It’s probably safe to assume that Apple can either overcome the operating costs of larger multi-touch screens or simply pass the buck onto consumers while still selling a billion models. However, it’s not as simple as throwing a touch-screen on an iMac.

The logistics of working on a touch-screen PC haven’t quite been perfected. You either have users reaching awkwardly across their desktop to touch the screen or have a lower mount that leaves users straining their neck while looking down. Remember that many of us work on a Mac for 40+ hours per week and anything slightly uncomfortable could deal serious damage to spines all over the world.

Further, since we’re not likely to abandon traditional interfaces any time soon, there needs to be a solid transition between processes that require a mouse, keyboard and/or trackpad and those that require direct interaction via multi-touch (often, you have to make the same process work both ways).

Priming the Market

This idea of duality between interaction methods becomes even more of a priority when you consider that Apple won’t want to render all current models completely obsolete the moment a touch-screen Mac is announced. Perhaps the Magic Trackpad is a hint at Apple trying to present older machines with touch-friendly input options.

This leads into the idea that Apple will no doubt seek to maximize consumer demand for a multi-touch Mac before delivering. They’re getting the public used to the idea of touch-screen technology not as the future, but as the current state of computing, and of Apple being the king of this market.

As with the iPad, expect some well-placed leaks to start sometime within a few months of the release. They’ll build us all into a frenzy wondering if the rumors are true and then drop the product that the whole world will be going nuts for even before the official announcement. This strategy worked wonders for the “Apple Tablet” and led to sales that blew away even generous estimates and I definitely expect it to be put to use again.

Is Apple Really Working On This?

Whether or not Apple will release a multi-touch Mac anytime soon is anyone’s guess. However, you can be certain that in the deep, dark and oh-so-secret tunnels of Apple inc. there are people working on the fabled device. Jobs himself has probably critiqued countless working prototypes and is pushing the design team ever closer to his elusive definition of perfection.

Hints of Apple’s solutions to the problems outlined above have already arisen from various sources. Patently Apple has an awesome article outlining recent Apple patents pointing towards multi-touch Macs.

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An interesting and very real Apple patent

Here you can see a new stand that can easily switch between an upright mode for traditional computing and a closer tilted position for touch-screen computing. The patent hints that sensors in the computer’s stand could be used to track the position and present an appropriate UI accordingly. So imagine seeing the current iPhoto UI when your screen is upright but a new touch-optimized UI when you switch to the touch-friendly monitor position.

Though by no means a finished idea, this definitely indicates that Apple has thought a lot about how to apply multi-touch technology in one of the few products left without it. An Apple patent doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll ever see a finished product, but in this case I think it’s safe to bet that Apple will one day make the leap.

Conclusion

My prediction is nothing shocking: Apple is far too excited about multi-touch to leave it in iOS. For decades Apple has held a niche market (albeit a growing one) in the PC world while they strategically took over other industries: music players, phones and most recently, tablets.

You can bet that the same technology that currently drives Apple’s industry-leading devices is their hope for turning the PC world on its head and finally taking a crippling chunk of market share away from HP and its Windows-based brethren.

Leave a comment below and let us know what you think. Will Apple release a multi-touch Mac soon or are we still a few years out? What will this new wonder-Mac and its accompanying OS be like and will they be great enough to loosen the hold of Windows on consumers? We want to hear your thoughts!