The Touch Bar is the most unorthodox addition to Apple’s new MacBook Pro — or any laptop in recent memory. A thin OLED strip that runs the length of the keyboard, resting just above the number keys, displays different “buttons” depending on the situation. Watching a movie? Symbols appear to let you adjust the volume. Hosting a party? Those symbols morph into an impromptu DJ kit. Texting? Enjoy the emoji keyboard.
Because most of us aren’t DJs, and none of us need a special touch screen to tweak the volume while watching Netflix, it’s the emoji-specific keyboard that I suspect will get the most daily usage. It’s a cute idea that raises a question: are emoji now as essential to written language for the typical computer-owner as numbers and letters?
The usage of symbols to add tone and emotion is as old as text itself. Emoji have enriched digital communications by helping us better express ourselves with concision. In recent years, the number and variety of emoji have expanded to match their significance. They now span merchandise, a movie, even as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Emoji reflect us on a basic level, from our sense of humor to how we self identify with race and gender.
This evolution of emoji predates Apple’s interest in the little icons, but in the past half decade the company has gradually become a major supporter and influencer of the form. In a cultural sense, Apple has leaned hard into making emoji friendlier for everyone, from expanding gender diversity to replacing its gun emoji with a family friendly squirt gun.
This ramp-up is reflected in its technology, as well. iOS 5 introduced a standard emoji keyboard — if you knew how to find it. The menu was buried in the international keyboard options. Today, iOS 10 treats emoji as a default experience with a system that predicts when you’re likely to use an emoji, and allows you to easily swap a word for a similar icon. If you want to grab dinner with your bud, for example, your phone is happy to translate the text into a mishmash of words and tiny images.
iOS continues to refine the look and increase number of emoji that are available, giving smartphone owners an advantage to quickly accessing the imagery. Macbook users had to enter weirdly complicated keyboard commands to load an emoji collection (for the record, it’s command+control+space). But it’ll be a lot simpler now: with the Touch Bar, Apple will allow users to seamlessly incorporate emoji into conversations in a way that simply wasn’t possible on a laptop before. The Touch Bar will serve many purposes, but it’s clear the most immediate function will be continuing the propagation of emoji in digital communication.
That isn’t to say Apple’s Touch Bar is redefining emoji use, rather it is in small part continuing the natural evolution of language. It’s catering to an audience that wants to communicate in new, faster and sometimes goofier ways, and the result may be a written language that’s as likely to include the written word as an emoji.
Makes you …