AMITIAE - Saturday 13 October 2016

Cassandra: Speculation on Enhanced use of Apple's Rumoured OLED display for MacBook Pro Computers

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


One of the more persistent rumours concerning anticipated new notebook Macintosh computers is that of the replacement of function keys by an OLED display. Rather than the limited output options of the standard F1 - F12 keys, this would offer different output options depending on the application being used. It would also be tunable: offering more options for the virtual displays. I wanted to write "virtual keys" there, but such displays allow far more variety for user input (hence output) than the 12 plastic keys we now work with.

Earlier this week, Jordan Kahn (9to5 Mac) speculated on what the OLED screen might look like and (more important), how it might work, with "contextually sensitive buttons, offering up different function keys depending on what app" is being used.

We can imagine right now how such changes might be used. To begin with, however, I would expect a standard set of options, similar to the current F-key use, so that users might not be confused. Where this sort of solution has its strengths is in the fine-tuning that becomes possible for individual users.

To imagine this we might look at the current situation regarding Function keys and the way Services operate. On MacBook Pro (and MacBook) keyboards as well as the 12 Function keys, there is an Fn key. By changing settings in System Preferences > Keyboard (Keyboard pane) we may either use the Function keys in standard fashion, or use special features when Fn is pressed.

When the specific checkbox is not used F12 increases the volume of speakers. Using the Fn key at the same time, activates the Dashboard. When the checkbox is used, these operations are reversed: F12 activates the Dashboard; Fn + F12 increases the volume of speakers. Other Function keys operate in a similar way. Some of the keys are unallocated. Certain applications may already use specific keys for different operations.

System Preferencs

In System Preferences > Keyboard (Shortcuts) it is possible to reallocate keys to different functions from those already mapped. As a simple example, the Spotlight search key combination on my MacBook Pro is Control + Space (I remapped Command + Space to change keyboards). It was a simple matter to click on the allocated command in the Shortcuts pane and type in FN + F1 (previously unallocated) so Spotlight now works with those keys.

If there had been any clash with the selection a yellow triangle would display a warning. These mechanical changes are time-consuming, require some knowledge of the System Preferences, and may not suit all users.

Key options

Like scripts and Automator, Services are underused but can provide a flexible approach to a user's personal computing for specific tasks. Users may not always be aware that there are Services available as they do not appear at all times in an application's main menu. Instead, the user will see No Services Apply, with a link to System Preferences (the Keyboard and Shortcuts again).

This is the situation with my text editor TextTWrangler. However, if I highlight a section of text, 10 actions are available to me, including sending a Twitter message directly from within the application. Safari operates in a similar way: no Services are shown until a portion of text is highlighted. Note, however, that Services may not apply when an image is selected (best to use Control + click for that).

Specific applications will have their own Services options added as they are installed. It is also possible to download new Services scripts or to create our own using Automator, which also allows the creation of many additional ways to create specific operations for Macs. Automator may be one of the most underused resources on OS X (or macOS).


Of course, relating such functions, services and options to a rumoured hardware change on unannounced Macs is mere speculation, but does indicate that if this type of functionality is built-in to current Macs, it could be that similar variations would be available to users with a tunable OLED replacement for the Function keys, thus allowing considerably more flexibility for those writing applications and to users who wish to personalise their machines.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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