Microsoft Designed the Touch Bar Long Before Apple’s MacBook Pro

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks under a graphic of the new MacBook Pro during an Apple media event in Cupertino
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks under a graphic of the new MacBook Pro during an Apple media event in Cupertino, California, U.S. October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX2QR68
Beck Diefenbach — Reuters

Microsoft might’ve been thinking about a Touch Bar long before Apple and its design chief Jony Ive considered it.

Microsoft’s Applied Sciences Group has a webpage detailing how the company has considered the use of “adaptive hardware” over the years. At the top of the page, which was earlier reported on by The Verge, Microsoft details a keyboard concept that would’ve shown “active action keys” above the keyboard and delivered input options to users based on what was happening on-screen.

“The concept is born,” the page reads. “A keyboard could be made that displays the active action keys and hides the irrelevant keys for a given application, application mode, and application state.”

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Microsoft’s (MSFT) webpage features a timeline of the technology’s development and shows the idea was first pitched by Steve Bathiche, director of research in Microsoft’s Applied Sciences Group, in 1999. He then worked with the team in the 2000s to develop a concept that evolved over time as technology improved. By 2009, Microsoft says, he had considered a touchscreen above the keys.

“The research team investigated how touch experiences might be effectively integrated with keyboard input,” Microsoft writes about the project’s progress in 2009. “This prototype has a large, touch-sensitive display strip at the top with the display continuing underneath the keys.”

Then, everything stopped. Microsoft’s timeline of the project’s development ends at 2009, and it would appear Bathiche was on to other technologies. In a tweet to The Verge this week, Bathiche said that Microsoft nixed the project. Its reason? “We did not build computers back then,” he tweeted.

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While Microsoft has long chronicled its work in adaptive technology, the Bathiche takes on additional importance in light of Apple’s announcement last month of a MacBook Pro with a Touch Bar. Similar to Bathiche’s concept, the Touch Bar sits above the MacBook Pro’s keyboard and provides a full touch interface for users to interact with whatever is on the screen. While Apple (AAPL) at its event stopped short of saying it was the only company considering the use of Touch Bar-like components, its senior executives touted its innovation and argued Apple was delivering a groundbreaking advancement.

Based on the Microsoft webpage, however, it would seem at least someone in the technology industry was thinking about ways to improve the keyboard long before Apple took up the charge. Apple was one of the first companies to actually run with it and deliver it in a mainstream vendor’s top-of-the-line machine.

Now, though, Microsoft is decidedly in the hardware game ,and many say the company’s Surface event last month overshadowed Apple’s meager Mac show.

Whether Microsoft will eventually deliver a Touch Bar equivalent, however, remains to be seen. Apple has remained steadfast that touchscreens don’t make sense in the computing market, but argues a touch-enabled strip above the keyboard does. Microsoft has gone the other route and bundled touchscreens in its Surface computers. Adding a Touch Bar equivalent might not make much sense.

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