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The Touch Bar is cool, but Mac innovation has slowed to a crawl

Apple Debuts New Watch
This picture is from a 2015 Apple event, but pictures from 2014, 2013, 2012, or 2011 wouldn’t look much different.
Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images

This afternoon, Apple executives took the stage to unveil a revised lineup of Mac laptops. The centerpiece of the presentation was the Touch Bar, a touchscreen on the new MacBook Pro that sits above the keyboard.

It’s a neat innovation, and arguably the biggest change to the Mac lineup in nearly a decade. And for some industry watchers, that seems more like an indictment of the broader pace of Mac progress.

“I'm beginning to wonder if Apple has given up on the Mac,” wrote ZD Net’s David Gewirtz discussing the rumored touchpad ahead of Thursday’s presentation. “This update looks a lot like they're phoning it in.” Indeed, Apple has seemed to “phone it in” for close to 10 years.

It really does seem like innovation on the Mac platform is slowing down. But that’s not really because Apple is “phoning it in.” It’s just because there’s only so much tech companies can do to improve a product that’s been around for decades.

Today’s Macs aren’t identical to the Macs that you could buy a decade ago, of course. They sport faster processors, have higher-resolution screens, and are less expensive. But if a die-hard Mac user went into a coma in 2008 and woke up in 2016, there’s very little about the latest Macs that would surprise him.

And the innovations that have occurred in the last decade have almost all been borrowed from the iPhone. That includes the Touch Bar and new Touch ID sensor on the latest MacBook Pro — both features lift heavily from innovations pioneered by the iPhone.

Recent Mac innovations were mostly pioneered by the iPhone

Apple's iPhone 7 And New Apple Watch On Sale In New York Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A decade ago, the Mac laptop lineup featured a MacBook and a MacBook Pro. The desktop options were an iMac, a Mac Mini, and a Mac Pro — exactly like today.

The most significant changes to the MacBook line since then came in 2008. Apple introduced the ultra-thin MacBook Air, which began the trend of eliminating DVD drives from laptops. Apple also unveiled a new “unibody” design that fashioned laptops out of a single piece of aluminum, making them a lot sturdier than the old plastic models.

One exception to the stasis: Apple revamped its lucrative but little-used Mac Pro to look more like a trash can in 2013.

The software side hasn’t seen a lot of changes either, and most of the changes that have occurred have involved importing innovations from the iPhone. In 2011 Apple changed how scrolling worked on the Mac OS to make it more like the iPhone.

Apple borrowed other iPhone innovations too. Macs now have a Notification Center that helps users manage notifications from various apps — an innovation pioneered on smartphones. After introducing the iPhone App Store in 2008, Apple brought the concept to the Mac in 2010. Apple’s latest OS update brought Siri, the iPhone’s voice assistant, to the Mac.

So Apple’s expected announcement today — that they’re adding a small touchscreen and a Touch ID sensor to the MacBook Pro — represents a continuation of the trend of phone-computer convergence. Apple invented the Touch ID fingerprint sensor for the iPhone, and since it’s been successful, Apple is porting it over to the Mac. Rumors suggest that the touchscreen and Touch ID sensor will have its own separate processing chip, which will not only make it more resistant to hacking but may also allow Apple to re-use more of its iPhone technology in its laptop line.

The Mac isn’t obsolete, it’s just mature

In an industry defined by constant change, it’s easy to assume that a product that’s no longer seeing much innovation is a product on the verge of being rendered obsolete. But that’s the wrong way to think about what’s happening to the Mac — and to PCs more generally.

A better way to think about it was once suggested by Steve Jobs: “PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by one out of X people.”

Almost everyone needs some kind of computing device just as almost everyone needs some kind of vehicle to get around. But for most people, a car is good enough. Most people, especially in cities, don’t need the towing and hauling capacity a truck provides.

Something similar is true for PCs. They’re finely honed tools for people — programmers, designers, video editors, administrators, journalists, and many others — who need to do serious work on their computers. These people can work much more efficiently with a big screen and a physical keyboard.

But a lot of people have more casual computing needs: reading social media posts, looking up maps, taking photos, sending occasional texts and emails. For them, the complexity of a PC is overkill.

So while smartphones and tablets have generated a lot more innovation in recent years than Macs have, this doesn’t mean that smartphones and tablets are about to replace Macs. Rather, they’re different tools optimized to serve different types of users. Macs have just been around longer, and so it’s getting harder and harder to find ways to make them better.