Is Apple Planning to Ditch the Keyboard? New Patent Hints at Dual-Screen MacBook

Apple has a habit of consigning technological staples to the history books. It did it with the floppy disk, then again with the USB port, and—despite considerable pushback—it went ahead and did it with the headphone jack too.

The next potential target on Apple's kill list, according to a new patent, is even more ubiquitous and longer-serving than all of these combined: the keyboard.

The patent, first spotted by Patently Apple, describes a second screen that essentially transforms the lower half of a laptop into a touchscreen.

The technology could also be embedded in other handheld electronic devices "such as a cellular telephone, media player, gaming device, or other device." However, the most suitable home for the technology would likely be a next-generation MacBook computer.

Apple has already attempted to instigate a mini keyboard revolution in laptops, having introduced the Touch Bar in 2016 to the MacBook Pro.

apple patent macbook keyboard touchscreen
Emoticons are displayed on the Touch Bar on an Apple MacBook Pro laptop during a product launch event on October 27, 2016, in Cupertino, California. Stephen Lam/Getty Images

The panel, which features above the top keys of the keyboard, acts as a second mini-display, complete with touch-sensitive text and graphics that replace the physical function of keys. It's proved useful for sharing emoji but has widely been panned as a gimmick.

Substituting the entire lower half of a MacBook with a screen would offer greater versatility and function but mean typing on a tablet, something that is already provoking divided reactions.

Apple, 2019: “We’d like to introduce the MacBook Pro 2. We’ve heard your feedback, and have replaced the entire keyboard with touchbars.”

— Chaim Gartenberg (@cgartenberg) January 4, 2018

When rumors circulated Apple was planning to ditch the headphone jack for the iPhone 7, more than a quarter of a million people signed an online petition for the tech giant to keep it. But this wasn't enough to prevent Apple following through with the design change that effectively rendered millions of headphones obsolete without an expensive dongle.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment on whether it plans to go the same way with the keyboard and typically does not remark on patents or rumors.

With such a loyal following locked in to Apple's closed-in ecosystem, another drastic purge is unlikely to see the world's richest corporation lose too many customers. The move could even prompt rivals like Google to follow suit, as they did with the removal of the headphone jack.

apple iphone 7 headphone jack
Over 250,000 people signed a petition pleading with Apple to keep the 3.5mm headphone jack for the iPhone 7. Ben Stassen/ Flickr CC

Taking on the keyboard may well be a step too far for some Apple fanboys and fangirls. To give an indication of how popular keyboards are, calculations by the popular YouTube channel Vsauce suggest that every second six million people around the world press the spacebar on a keyboard.

But when Apple did away with a physical keyboard on its first ever iPhone, many saw this as a drawback. "That virtual keyboard will be about as useful for tapping out emails and text messages as a rotary phone," the technology website TechCrunch lamented in a 2007 article.

"Don't be surprised if a sizable contingent of iPhone buyers express some remorse at ditching their BlackBerry when they spend an extra hour each day pumping out emails on the road."

Needless to say, the article, titled We Predict the iPhone Will Bomb, aged considerably less well than the iPhone.