A folding-screen MacBook is an absolutely terrible idea

Student watching video with a cup of coffee in a library
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It's hard to imagine a more ridiculous idea than an all-screen MacBook that replaces a full-sized keyboard with a virtual one. 

That's the latest rumor. Apple's so amped, according to reports, about the possibility of a foldable iPhone that it's already trying to figure out how to bring the technology to its popular MacBooks.

Assuming there's even a shred of truth to this, it's a silly, borderline insane idea.

Why not?

After the screen, the second most important buying consideration when it comes to the laptop is – wait for it – the keyboard.

Reviewers can wax rhapsodic over the feel, clickiness, and especially key travel, which we now measure in millimeters. Consumers and business users care about it so much that when someone messes with the feature, they lose their minds.

Apple found this out when it introduced the butterfly keyboard technology in the MacBook Air. It was supposed to cut down on the amount of space you needed for keyboard mechanics while leaving in a place that precious travel. The reality was a system that often got gummed up with crumbs and other gunk.

When Apple stamped out the butterfly and replaced it with a more traditional keyboard, MacBook fans, especially MacBook pro fans, rejoiced.

Laptops are, by their nature, productivity systems. They're now the dominant desktop computing device and used for creating reports, presentations, emails, documentation, and coding.

I can't type worth a lick, but I know that precision in all of these tasks is key. A virtual display, yes, even a giant folding one engineered by Apple can only produce the crudest form of exactitude. The level of haptics to tell people they've hit the correct key in the correct spot on a gleaming expanse of glass is probably damn near impossible.

History says no

I've seen my share of oddball laptop concepts and even products that try to mess with the laptop keyboard. They invariably fail.

When Microsoft introduced the Surface tablet, it also unveiled the Touch Cover – not the Type Cover but the Touch Cover. This cover, which can attach to one thin edge of the tablet and folds over to cover the screen when not in use, is extremely thin and its keyboard features no actual keys, just printing that suggests a keyboard. With the total lack of physical keystroke response, I found typing on the cover impossible. As soon as Microsoft made the Surface Type Cover with real keys available, I jumped at it. I have yet to see a single modern Surface user with a Touch Cover.

Other companies have tried the screen-based keyboard approach. There was the Acer Iconia "Dual Screen laptop." You'd be forgiven for having no recollection of this misbegotten device. To its credit, you could use both screens as regular displays, but if you wanted to use it in laptop mode, you had to settle for a completely virtual keyboard screen.

Apple knows better

I fully trust that Apple knows this history and is more allergic to bad design and unusual ideas than most tech companies.

Still, the allure of foldable screens is strong.

According to the report, Apple envisions a laptop that could fold out into a 20-inch display that you'd attach to, say, an Apple Magic keyboard. That sounds okay until you remember that most folding screen devices still have a little ripple at the screen bend. It's obvious to the touch and can, in some instances, be visible to the eye.

That is so not Apple.

I have nothing against foldable displays, especially in small mobile devices where you can suddenly double the screen real estate. However, for larger devices, I do not get the appeal. A 20-inch display is something you want to attach to a stand and generally leave on your desk. A device with a 13-inch display and an attached physical keyboard is a laptop that you have on your desk, fold up, unfold on your lap on the train, fold again, and then unfold on the desktop at home.

In this on-the-go work lifestyle, the last thing you need is a reflective screen keyboard that slows you down.

If I were a betting man, I'd say Apple was workshopping this idea simply to send competitors chasing rainbows.

Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.