Opinion: Blood on the trackpads

December 16, 2010 11:36 AM EST

Apple's [AAPL] move toward making Macs more touch-friendly has been confirmed by the company, when touch makes sense. We also know not to expect touchscreen iMacs soon -- Magic Trackpad is the touch interface for desktops, but how long will it be until we see the Mac keyboard replaced by a touch-sensitive, intelligent device?

Think about it.

There's French keyboards, Russian keyboards, UK and US English keyboards. What's the use? Every English speaker who has ever tried to try to write a message on (for example) a French keyboard has been quickly confounded by the different layout.

"What are you complaining about?" some wag may remark. "Surely you can just change the layout using System Preferences?"

[This story is from Computerworld's Apple Holic blog. Follow on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

Well, thanks for asking, Mr (or Mrs, or Ms. or Miss) Clever-Clever of Cleverness Street, Clever Town, that might even work if I happened to be a touch typist, but I'm not. I need those visual cues on the keyboard characters. And while I'm not exactly lost without them, they do help.

Only connect

Now imagine a touch-sensitive keyboard. It would be a sheet of glass. Like an iOS keyboard it would show you the keyboard layout, but with large character buttons and "regular" amounts of space between those buttons. It would be easier to type with than an iPhone or an iPad, as it would be full-sized.

- Need to use a different language format with this device?
No problem, tell your system which language you wish to use for input and "boom", a whole new keyboard.

- Want to access alternate key characters?
Just tell the system and "boom" there they are, all nice and clearly marked. I can imagine programmers would love this.

- Forgotten the shortcuts?
You know the drill -- tell the system, and "boom" there they are, all clearly marked.

And beyond:

  • Using an application with non-standard shorcut actions inside -- tell the system and there they all are, clearly marked.
  • Playing a game? Seamless- there's even a clearly-flagged button to take you back to desktop mode.

Another thing -- do you need a separate mouse? Given that invoking the number pad just means asking your system to put the numbers up, then couldn't that side of the keyboard be transformed into a Magic TrackPad? Input all your control signals right there.

Indeed, is there any reason your whole keyboard couldn't comprise some form of touch-sensitive interface? Use it with a stylus for detailed image enhancement, perhaps? (Sorry Wacom) For a natural feeling when reading a book, and easy access to cut-and-paste of anything on the screen.

Touching tales

Navigation, too. Think about CoverFlow in iTunes. Think about it, and consider a report here which claims CoverFlow is going to become Spiral Flow (Spiral Find?), so you'll see everything all at once.

Wouldn't it makes sense to use your intelligent, touch-loving keyboard to navigate this way? Especially on your future 3D Mac...

Even better, this idea is backward compatible. If Apple were to move in this direction then any Mac capable of fully running a future version of OS X would be immediately compatible with the new keyboard, which, for the sake of argument, I'm christening, Magic Keyboard.

Look, don't misunderstand me. I am not claiming any huge insight into Apple's plans here. Like anyone who had spent the last 12-years writing about the company might do, I'm just speculating. I do feel like it could be a natural evolution.

Surely as Mac OS X and iOS systems are guided toward a viable, logical and primarily user-focused convergence, then part of that convergence will see the interface itself transform?

What is the mouse and the keyboard but an interface?

Historical symmetry

Sure, I know the mouse and keyboard were historically essential to the evolution of the GUI, but that was then and this is now and everything must change.

It even makes poetic sense for Apple to be the company which brings in this new user interface paradigm.

After all, wasn't it Apple's co-founder Steve Jobs who was so inspired by the mouse and keyboard experiments at Xerox Parc that he took them out of the lab and into the PC? Why shouldn't he squeeze in another change in the user interface? If anybody can, he can.

I have no idea how much such a keyboard would cost. It wouldn't need its own processor, and could probably be driven by OpenCL and the Mac's own graphics processor (well, these are combined in future models, allegedly). It wouldn't need much -- if any -- of its own memory.

I'd like it to debut as a standard fitting with all new Macs, but I suspect it may be too expensive for that, particularly as Apple plots to introduce desktop Macs at even lower cost in 2011.

A manufacturing advantage: Apple would only need to build one keyboard, it would no longer need to build keyboards in different language combinations. This may help lower comparative manufacturing costs.

Display screen technology may be expensive -- but we wouldn't need super high-res here, a standard screen will do (though it must be responsive) and given that Apple recently widened its touchscreen supply chain, this stuff will get cheaper.

Who benefits? We do

We'd have the most sophisticated, most configurable, most personal (imagine the keyboard acting as a little digital photo display when not in use) input device possible. It could even be biometrically aware of our fingerprints for accessing our Home folders, email and/or signing electronic cheques and accessing protected files and places.

Will it happen? I don't know, but I think it could.

What about you? Can you imagine your Mac keyboard becoming a touch-sensitive, MultiTouch-enabled, configurable device? Let me know in comments below, and please follow this blog on Twitter and I'll be sure to let you know when the next article is first published, here on Computerworld.