The unreasonable effectiveness of mice

I don’t want to turn this into an input devices blog, but Andy Ihnatko’s post on the Magic Trackpad—which, curiously, didn’t show up in my RSS reader until this morning—got me thinking. I still don’t think the Magic Trackpad is right for me (see this discussion), but he does identify an interesting niche for it. And I started wondering why I feel certain I—and most other people—will be sticking with a mouse.

Here’s the key paragraph in Andy’s post:

AppleTV just got realllllllllly interesting. Existing AppleTVs — the one Apple product you’ve forgotten about, the one that sits at the back of the class and never raises its hand — are MacOS devices. They’re controlled via IR remotes and thus they require line-of-site between the device and the operator. With the Magic Trackpad in the product lineup, Apple could completely reinvent the AppleTV as a device that hides somewhere behind your TV, runs a new flavor of iOS, and ships with a Magic Trackpad instead of a clickybutton remote.

A Magic Trackpad—small(ish), wireless, and with no need for a surface to sit on—would be a great input device for AppleTV. You’d need to have the Tap to Click feature turned on because normal clicking is done by depressing the trackpad’s feet, which wouldn’t work if you’re on the couch or sitting in your recliner.1

I’m skeptical that the next AppleTV will be an iOS device, though. I know this is a popular rumor, but I don’t see it. Apple’s stated roadmap for iOS is to unify it over the 4.x series, eventually getting the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad all running the same version. Making an iOS-powered AppleTV would throw a monkey wrench into that plan, because it would require an onscreen pointer. Current iOS devices don’t need a pointer because your finger is right there touching the screen. When you’re operating a TV, and your finger is on a trackpad on the other side of the room, you need to see something on the screen that mimics the motion of your finger. I don’t believe Apple wants to put a pointer in iOS.

Regardless of the underlying operating system, with the right UI software, a trackpad would be a great TV input device.

So why don’t I think a trackpad will be great computer input device? I can’t quite put my (ahem) finger on it, but I think it has something to do with levels of abstraction.

When the Mac first came out, much was made of the notion that you used the mouse to manipulate items in your computer directly. This wasn’t true, of course, but it did make you feel closer to the machine because your previous computer work had been mediated through a keyboard,2 typing in cryptic commands. The mouse was, in fact, just another type of mediation, an abstraction. You were moving this plastic brick around on your desk to get an arrow to move around on the screen.

Despite the abstraction, there was something very right about the mouse. In a short time, mice were a common sight. Even before Windows was usable,3 people were using mice with character-based DOS shells like Norton Commander. Sometime in the early 90s, it became unthinkable for a desktop personal computer to ship without a mouse.

Other pointer devices have come and gone, but the mouse has stayed around in basically the same form it started with over a quarter of a century ago. Switching from mechanical to optical encoding was a big improvement in reliability, but it didn’t change how you used the mouse. The proliferation of buttons and the addition of a scrollwheel, no matter how successful they may have been, were really just tweaks.

Manufacturers have tried to come up with something better than a mouse. Graphics tablets have had their niche among artists and designers for years, but if they were going to spread to the general user, they would have done so by now. Laptop computers have seen the most experimentation with mouse substitutes, for the obvious reason that it’s really hard to use a mouse on your lap. Everyone seems to have settled on the trackpad as the best laptop pointer device—and it is much better than what came before—but most people still prefer to use a mouse when they can.

If you believe that removing layers of abstraction between the computer and the user makes for a better interface, you would think the trackpad would come out ahead of the mouse. With a trackpad, your finger is moving the onscreen pointer; the motion isn’t being mediated through a plastic brick. Why, then, the continued success of mice? Why isn’t Logitech in the trackpad business?

I think the problem with the trackpad is that it falls into a sort of uncanny valley between the touchscreen and the mouse.

With a well-made touchscreen, the behavior is almost physical. You touch the items and move them around; you pinch and pull to resize. In every case, you see your fingers right on the thing being manipulated, and it seems natural.

With a mouse, your hand is off to the side moving an object around on your desk to change things up on the screen—the whole business is more abstract. But somehow, the unrealistic motion of your hand matches up with the fact that the effect it’s having is a foot or two away. I can’t say that this feels natural, but it does feel right.

The trackpad uses the touchscreen’s natural finger movements, but has them tied to a screen some distance away. It works OK—I’m using a trackpad right now, and it’s just fine—but its mixture of the real and the abstract isn’t quite as good as the mouse’s more fully abstract behavior.

I don’t want to come off as a trackpad hater; I’m not. At the moment, it’s the best pointer device we have for laptops. I just don’t see it replacing the mouse on my desktop.

  1. Prepositions are funny, aren’t they? If I had written in the couch or on the recliner, you’d have done a double-take. With a chair, you can sit in it or on it—in is more common, but on is common enough—but when that chair turns into a recliner, you have to be in it. 

  2. Yes there were mice before the Mac, but they weren’t in wide use. Joysticks were also used to move onscreen pointers around, but they didn’t have the direct feel of mice. 

  3. That joke is too easy; don’t bother.