Apple’s Escape from Reality

The keyboard as a TV screen

Apple's Escape from Reality

Last Thursday, Apple announced its updated MacBook Pro line of computers. The laptops are thinner and lighter than before, certainly “the thinnest MacBook Pros we’ve ever made.” The ten hours of battery life seems underwhelming given the sixteen-hour laptop that Microsoft announced the day before the Apple event. But it probably won’t catch fire, and the sleek, light update will sell like crazy.

During the presentation, Phil Schiller spent most of his time introducing the Touch Bar, a keyboard-wide Retina Display that lives where the function keys used to reside. This touch-sensitive region presents the standard F1, F2, etc., function keys, but can also adjust itself with different keys, sliders, images, and spell-check features based on your main-display activities. For those who find typing on the flat surface of an iPad tablet to be nothing short of a religious experience, the new Touch Bar will be the number one reason to upgrade to the new MacBook Pro.

It’s not for me. Sure, I’ll lament the loss of the function keys, even though during the four years that the MacBook Pro was my primary coffee shop device, my attachment to those keys came primarily through Microsoft Word activities. But Apple has also seen fit to eliminate the Escape key, and for me, that ruins what was already a flawed input surface.

If you’re not a programmer, you might have overlooked the Escape key. Perched in the upper-left corner, it was one of those lesser-used keys, like backslash (\), or the circumflex (^). But I used it constantly, especially when editing computer source code. I’m a fan of VI (“vee-eye”), a code editing tool introduced in the mid-1970s, back when “computer graphics” meant, well, pretty much nothing.

VI is keyboard-centric, a mouse-less tool from a mouse-less era, designed for fast text input for people who seldom communicated apart from the keyboard. The program sported three main “modes,” one for typing, one for moving around, and one for issuing special commands. The Escape key helped you navigate between these modes with minimal hand movement. With Escape’s static location in the far corner of the keyboard, VI users had at least one safe, known place they could depend on.

But not on the MacBook Pro. While Escape still remains as a Touch Bar feature during some text entry experiences, its lack of physicality will certainly have an impact on the fifteen percent or more of developers still using VI or one of its modern variants as their main code modification tool.

I left the MacBook Pro world for a Dell XPS 13 about two years ago, and one of the main reasons for returning to Windows had to do with keyboard issues. In Windows, the Alt+Tab keyboard combination lets you rotate through all of your active applications. It’s quick, and the position of the keys makes it an easy reach for such a common task. But on Apple laptops, you needed to alternate between an unhealthy set of key-pairs (Command-Tab and Command-Backquote) to accomplish the same thing. And pasting text with Command-V required that a mobster break your left thumb in the right place.

So it’s no surprise to me that Apple has, once again, opted to dispense with the past, evoking the same “courage” that allowed it to remove the ubiquitous headphone jack from its latest iPhone. Perhaps you are just fine with the late, great Escape key, or the upgrade of the function keys to a capacitive replacement. For me, it’s just one more opportunity to shed some tears over a bit of input device nostalgia, all from the comfort and safety of my Windows keyboard.

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Tim Patrick is a software architect and developer with more than 30 years of experience in designing and building custom software solutions. He is the author of multiple books on Microsoft technologies, and was selected as a Microsoft MVP for his support to the programming community. Tim earned his degree in computer science from Seattle Pacific University.


  1. I propose Apple do away with the keyboard altogether and put an iPod-like console on all computers. If those keys aren’t available (ESC, alt-tab, etc) it’s because you don’t /really/ need it. You just don’t know it yet. They know you more than you know you. If we still have problems, we are simply not hipster-cool enough.

  2. I appreciate the eulogy for the Escape key, especially for those using VI style input schemes from the days of Unix. My experience with the task switching key sequence of Command-Tab in the latest iterations of OS X, is that it now works similarly to Windows. And, Command-backquote now switches between the windows within one running application. I use both operating systems between work and home, and find that the application switching to be very similar nowadays.

    One concern I have with the new touch-bar interface is that it will require one’s focus to be redirected towards the keyboard to fully utilize the new features. I’m skeptical that having to constantly switch one’s gaze from the display to the top of the keyboard and back again will yield any increase in productivity and may diminish it overall.

    Other than task switching, I take advantage of keyboard shortcuts mainly only when performing word processing. I’m not sure why I haven’t learned the shortcuts with other applications. I think it may be a leftover from using the competing word processor Wordperfect before the mouse had gained acceptance. Microsoft mimicked those keyboard shortcuts to ease the transition while MS Word took over the universe. Now that the mouse in ubiquitous, …I was raised a GUI child.

  3. As I type this reply back to you, my keyboard is on my desk’s sliding keyboard tray, which is currently in the under-desk position. I can’t see the keyboard or my hands–I hope they’re still there! So you are absolutely right about the need to swivel my eyes between the screen and the keyboard constantly when the function keys go away. Maybe all of the Apple designers are among the hunt-and-peck typing population.


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