The End of the Mouse?

There seems to be magic in the air over at Apple. While we’ve all enjoyed our share of laughs at how much Steve Jobs has touted the iPad as “magical,” it’s easy to forget that Apple has had its Magic Mouse around since last October. Look, it’s got “magic” right there in the name!

Even so, the Magic Mouse was a real hit. I should know, as someone who wanted to gift it as a Christmas present last winter, but couldn’t find any Apple Store in the area that had them in stock. With the Magic Mouse, Apple took their multi-touch technology that they had developed for the iPhone and adapted on their notebook trackpads and applied it to the glass surface of a low-profile wireless mouse. Sure, you could still click and track like a mouse (and right-click if you clicked in the right place), but now you could scroll–or, if you could master your two-finger scrubbing, navigate back and forward–simply by gesturing on the mouse surface.

Well now this morning, hidden amidst an iMac and Mac Pro refresh, Apple let some more Mac-accessory magic out of the proverbial bag: the Magic Trackpad. It’s a fairly simple concept: Apple took the same glass trackpad from their MacBook Pros, complete with the clickable surface and all the gestures, made it a bit bigger, placed it in a stand that looks just like their wireless keyboard, and made it wireless over Bluetooth. Yet this “simple” concept could perhaps signal that Apple’s long-term vision of the future does not include a mouse.

At least, that was the thesis of an article on TechCrunch this morning: Apple’s Magic Trackpad Signals the End of the Mouse Era. But interestingly enough, it spurred up a huge angry comment storm from people, essentially saying that the author was insane. But I disagree; I think that there’s a valid argument here.

While you can of course use the Magic Trackpad alongside another mouse, let’s look at the pros and cons of replacing Apple’s Magic Mouse with the Magic Trackpad. If it’s gestures you want, then the Magic Trackpad wins hands-down, no contest. That’s simply because you can’t do very many gestures on the Magic Mouse; it has neither the surface area nor the inertial stability. Heck, you can even use a Mac’s trackpad for drawing in some apps–Mac OS X itself has built-in support for Chinese character input by drawing the character using trackpads. There are even some people who have complained that the Magic Mouse’s low-profile doesn’t fit their hands–a non-issue for a trackpad. True, there are some third-party mice that have lots of extra buttons and functionality, but when’s the last time you saw an average consumer using one of those?

What may be more interesting to consider is that from Apple’s perspective, mouse users are already in the minority. Nearly two-thirds of the Macs Apple sells today are notebooks. Notebooks with, you guessed it, trackpads. Not to mention all of the other gadgets that Apple makes (iPods, iPads, iPhones) also involve rubbing fingers against a surface to interact with the device.

However, saying that the Magic Trackpad marks the end of the Mouse Era is like Steve Jobs saying that “The CRT is officially dead” when they announced the iMac G4 in January 2002. (Apple continued to sell a CRT-display Mac until July 2006.) There are still a number of valid uses for the mouse, and there are a number of applications where the logistics of using a trackpad does not compare to those of using a mouse. (I’m looking at you, Final Cut Pro.) The mouse vs. trackpad question is a user preference, and there are some users that will stay with their mice until the end of time. But in their customary fashion, Apple has taken an old idea and brought it to a new space. Perhaps the trackpad really will overtake the mouse as we move closer to a multi-touch world.

Until then, I’m going to go play with the new inertial scrolling that Apple’s Multi-Touch update just delivered to my MacBook Pro. 🙂

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This entry was posted in From the Apple Tree, On the Technical Side by Douglas Bell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Bell

I live in Washington, D.C., and work as a Broadcast Technician at WAMU 88.5 FM, the local NPR affiliate in the Washington metro area. My primary shift is to engineer the local feed of NPR’s Morning Edition, including local news and weather, long-form features and station breaks… and yes, the shift starts at 5 am, so I’ve got the whole quasi-nocturnal thing going on. I am also the Coordinating Producer for Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie, an independently-produced podcast and public radio program. Extracurricularly, I play cello, and participate in a church choir and a handbell choir. I enjoy discovering new places, and am constantly searching for the perfect cheeseburger. I am also known as a frequent teller of puns.

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