Love ’em or hate ’em, keyboards on the Mac are here to stay, right? Right? Maybe. About four of every five Macs are notebooks and they come with built-in keyboards designed to satisfy all customers. Do they?
Nope. Apple’s MacBook Air is on the company’s third generation so-called butterfly keyboard; history will not be kind to the design thanks to poor key travel and high repair costs. Anybody got any better ideas?
Real vs. Virtual
MacBook models a real keyboard. You may not like the design. You may hate the feel. The keyboard is built into each Mac notebook and that won’t go away any time soon.
Or, will it?
Jake Krol isn’t the first to realize what a virtual keyboard can do for the Mac, but he shows Apple still has some ideas worth consideration.
Three recently filed Apple patents show an expansion of the Touch Bar idea, including a fully customizable virtual keyboard, touch surfaces on the sides of a traditional keyboard, and more.
macOS already has a virtual keyboard that pops up on the Mac’s screen, but that is little more than a visual representation of a keyboard that still requires a mouse or trackpad to point and click.
What about iPhone and iPad? Both have virtual keyboards, right? While their implementation is better than the on-screen macOS keyboard, what would prevent Apple from taking that virtual keyboard to a full size.
In other words, a full-sized keyboard that it a display that resides where the Mac’s notebook keyboard lives now.
While a traditional clamshell laptop has a just one display on the top panel, this patent envisions one on the bottom panel as well, in lieu of a keyboard. This will bring back memories of the Kyocera Echo (a clamshell smartphone with two displays), although we suspect Apple might pull off the concept better.
I like the idea.
If anyone can pull it off, Apple can; but what virtual needs is a touch of reality. Apple has some of that via Force Touch and 3D Touch on Mac and iPhone already. Touch the display and it feels as if you’ve touched a button; thanks to little vibrations that signal a touch has occurred.
What’s nice about the keyboard on iPhone and iPad is that it’s software controlled and can be instantly adjusted for almost any language (haven’t seen Klingon, yet).
Underneath that bottom panel will be sensors for detecting the tapping of the virtual keys. The patent also lists haptics being on-board and those would enable feedback for a keystroke or click. It will also allow for custom inputs, like sliders and wheels that vary for each application
Ipso facto and alakazam. A virtual keyboard on a Mac notebook that looks and feels like a physical keyboard instead of a display keyboard.
Apple is working towards the future of keyboards, some that remove keys entirely and others that modify the current keys-plus-Touch Bar design. All of these new patents call back to older ones, which show earlier takes on the idea of a touch keyboard. Apple’s patents stick in line with a touchscreen laptop not being in the pipeline; the company has been staunchly against developing a touch Mac, arguing that it would put a strain on the user.
In an odd but attractive way, a future reality is virtual.
What about the second Mac keyboard idea? This one should be something Apple could do but cannot but Google is doing it already. Google’s Gboard app for iPhone and iPad.
Google has released an update for its Gboard mobile keyboard for iOS, adding text translation support for all languages supported by Google Translate. The new feature enables iPhone and iPad owners to directly translate text-based messages without toggling to the separate Google Translate app, speeding up the entire process and decreasing disruption to ongoing conversations.
So, instead of having to bounce back and forth between whatever you’re writing at the moment and Google Translate app, the translation is built into the Gboard keyboard.
How cool is that?
Well, not that cool yet.
The user must type the text they want translated directly into the Translate app that appears, not the messaging app’s text field. Translate will automatically detect the input language and will have an output language displayed, such as Spanish. If you need to translate to a different language, tap the output language to pull up the selection menu.
Virtual keyboards that don’t need a physical keyboard, and keyboards that can translate on the fly are the future.
I just wish parts of the future would get here sooner.