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Will Apple unveil a touchscreen laptop running iOS in ’15 months to 2 years’?

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Could a touchscreen Mac really be on the way?


Image: Sarah Tew/CNET

A surprising number of Mac users would really, really like to have touchscreens. But that can’t happen with MacOS, unless Apple undertakes the same long, slow, painful journey that Microsoft has been on.

Microsoft has worked on making third-party software work well with touch instead of a mouse ever since Windows 7 first added touch support, and Microsoft cheated by using Microsoft Research and machine learning to make Office touch more accurate without making the icons any bigger.

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Neither Apple, nor its third-party software developers, nor its users, really have the appetite for that.

But touchscreen ‘laptops’ could happen easily, if iOS grew up into Apple’s laptop operating system, and Apple is clearly making some big investments in the way it designs the ARM chips iPads use.

Apple this week told Imagination Technologies, which has been providing the GPU for its ARM SoCs, that it will stop using them in “15 months to two years”. So will that be when we see something you could call a touchscreen Mac, if you didn’t look too closely, that satisfies the unhappy MacBook Pro customers?

Apple has always been very ready to fire customers it doesn’t see as worth investing in. It used to be that you had to regularly buy a new Mac to be able to get the latest version of OS X.

The expectation is that users will buy a new iPhone, if not every year, then every other year. While you can upgrade the OS, older phones often don’t cope well with the latest version, or don’t have the hardware to support new features.

So it’s possible that Apple is willing to give up ‘Pro’ customers who want a more powerful machine than fits in the sleek, thin, lightweight systems that Apple wants to create.

Those priorities have shaped the design of the new MacBooks. Adding more than 16GB of RAM would mean using more power, which would mean shorter battery life. The new keyboard technology hasn’t been universally popular in the USB-C MacBook, but it means the keyboard is thinner. Don’t like the tradeoffs in that design? You probably aren’t Apple’s target customer.

After all, Macs are only 10 percent of Apple’s income, and its CEO Tim Cook suggested at the launch of the iPad Pro that tablets will replace notebooks.

“If you’re looking at a PC, why would you buy a PC anymore? No really, why would you buy one? Yes, the iPad Pro is a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people. They will start using it and conclude they no longer need to use anything else, other than their phones,” he said.

Apple is still making Intel Macs; there’s a new Mac Pro on the way that’s being completely rethought, yet again, and interim models with new Xeon processors.

Apple is also rumored to be interested in Intel’s 3DX Point memory, now with the easier to pronounce name of Optane, which has made it as far as the datacenter as SSDs and will be available as DRAMs some time after that.

It’s unlikely that Apple was ever hoping to get those in the 2016 MacBooks. Apple just doesn’t gamble on unfinished components like that. But this kind of new technology may be what it’s waiting for to give the developers who need speed a new generation of systems.

But those customers aren’t the biggest group of Apple’s customers, no matter how vocal they’re being about frustrations that are enough to drive some of them to Windows, now that it can run command-line Linux tools that developers depend on.

However much Apple mocked touchscreen PCs as vintage trucks and toaster fridges, there’s clearly a market for devices that let you both touch the screen and type on the keyboard, and iOS is a better way for Apple to build that.

Apple has been using its ARM license to design its own CPUs since the first iPad. Now it has hired enough silicon designers, several of them from Imagination, to design its own graphics processors to go alongside those. And that happens just as ARM CPUs go from being underpowered but very good at processing lots of threads at the same, to having performance that’s remarkable close to Intel CPUs on the right tasks.

That’s why Microsoft is adding ARM servers to Azure. In the datacenter, ARM is right for very parallel tasks like machine learning and search indexing.

But that’s also enough performance to build a next-generation iPad Pro that could run something closer to Photoshop than a mobile app. After all, Microsoft thinks next-generation ARM chips are fast enough to run the Windows version of Photoshop in emulation.

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