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Friday, January 11, 2008

One more thing...

Since it's only a few more days until MacWorld, with its highly anticipated SteveNote, that means it must be time for the traditional wanton speculation! Seriously, MacWorld is like geek Christmas. It's Geekmas!

The Mac users at my office are running a pool to see who makes the most accurate (and fun) predictions about MacWorld announcements (the winner gets bragging rights and the knowledge of a job well-done, so obviously the stakes are high!) And, yes, we're a Windows software company where a third of the staff use Macs -- take a moment to ponder the implications of that.

My humble predictions are as follows:
  1. Tablet Mac (basically a big iPod Touch with USB/bluetooth keyboard options) designed for media playback and remote computing via Back to My Mac.
  2. iPhone SDK support for the tablet
  3. MacBook and MacBook Pro redesigns to bring their looks more in line with the iPhone, Touch, and iMac.
  4. Higher end Mac Mini or lower end Mac Pro, probably just called a Mac.
But every SteveNote watcher knows that what we all tune in for is the mythical One More Thing -- the thing that Steve Jobs waits until the very end of the keynote to announce, the "last but not least" show-stopping grand finale. So here's my prediction:

Steve nears the end of the keynote, he recaps all the great new products, then he pauses dramatically and says:

"But there's one more thing. Our users have been asking for a two-button mouse for years, but we don't think that's the right way to go. Instead, we're eliminating the mouse completely."

Yeah, that's right: no more mice. Instead they will be replaced by mousepad-shaped multi-touch panels that attach to Macs via USB or bluetooth.

Quit gaping and close your mouth, it's not as crazy as it sounds. Lots of people are already happily using touch pads on their laptops with nary a mouse in sight, and simple external touchpads have been around for years. Some quick searching on Google and YouTube will turn up all sorts of experiments into touch interfaces, and if you have the time I highly recommend watching a few. So like most other things, Apple isn't inventing something new here, they're just doing it right. The big changes in the Apple Multi-Touch Panel are that it's bigger, it's multi-touch like the iPhone, and support for it is built directly into OS X.

Now, before I proceed, I have to make one thing perfectly clear: I have no sources or inside intelligence or direct evidence for this whatsoever. I'm merely making a swag based on current products, extrapolated trends, and wishful thinking.

What I predict is something about the size of a mouse pad or Wacom tablet. Users will put their hand on it very much as if they were using a mouse, and drag a finger around to point with. Putting two (or more) fingers on the surface will activate multi-touch features very similar to the iPhone (pinching and pulling to zoom, spinning to rotate, flicking to scroll, etc.) Perhaps more interestingly, it will open up new avenues for the long-neglected field of gesture interfaces.

I know this sounds crazy, but take a moment try to imagine what such an interface device might feel like. Move your mouse out of the way and rest your hand on the desktop where it usually sits. See how it rather naturally assumes the same position? Now imagine that your desktop is touch sensitive like the touchpad on a laptop, and try moving a finger around as if you were controlling your pointer with it. That doesn't seem so bad to me. Clicking could be handled the same way it is on touchpads. Dragging could be handled by having two fingers on at once.

Right-clicking could be handled by...wait! That's not a problem because you don't need to right-click on a Mac! Oh, ok, I'll admit that I don't really buy that. I use a two-button mouse all the time. But Command-Clicking could still work unaltered, or using three fingers could activate a right-click, or tapping a finger to the right of your pointing finger, or.... Well, really, once you eliminate the hardware, the user interface can take whatever form you want.

I think it would still stink for most gaming (at first), and I don't think I'd want to do heavy-duty Photoshopping with it, but mice and pen tablets will still work just like they do now, so I don't see those programs being an issue.

So what evidence do I have?

Well, first there's Cringely's cryptic prediction that "Apple will introduce...its replacement for the mouse" -- I have to pause here to give him credit for setting me off thinking in this direction to begin with. That statement merged with the laptop touch panel rumors to form the crux of this concept.

Second, there's Steve Jobs' purported dislike of buttons. If he truly hates buttons, what could be better than eliminating them entirely?

Third, there's also the somewhat inexplicable delay of the iPhone SDK, which obviously exists, since that's what Apple's own developers are using to write iPhone apps. One possible explanation for the delay is that it would reveal too much about upcoming OS X and Mac maybe system-wide touchability.

Fourth, of course, we have the iPhone itself, along with its cousin the iPod Touch. Apple has obviously invested a great deal of time and money into developing really nice touch interfaces, and even as successful as the iPhone has been (and may well be in the future), that alone seems insufficient to justify that kind of R&D effort. Apple has to be making other plans for that technology.

One benefit of the Multi-Touch Pad, and the fifth reason to expect it, is that it would provide a single interface method across all of Apple's OS X systems. Right now, we have touchpads on laptops, touch screens on phones/iPods, clickwheels on iPods, and mice on desktops. None of those are going away overnight, of course, but they'll exist alongside the new interfaces indefinitely.

And, finally, we come to my least-supported but most-compelling reason: it's just time. Looking at a brief history of computer interfaces, it appears that input paradigm shifts come along every 15-25 years. There were about 23 years of punch card dominance, followed by 14 years of command line (keyboard) dominance, and now we've had 24 years of mouse dominance. Obviously, those are approximate dates, and old methods lingered for years after. Command lines are still with us today (and are superior to GUIs in some respects).

The fact remains, though, that since Apple popularized the mouse with the original Mac in 1984, we've really had only incremental improvements in input devices. I think (and hope) that it's time for the text paradigm, and I can't think of any company better positioned to promote it than Apple, which controls the entire user experience, from OS to software to hardware.

At the very least, I think it's time to finally move beyond what Xerox PARC did in the 1970s...even if that just means moving forward to what they did in the 80s and 90s. :-)

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Blogger Ryan said...

Well, bummer -- maybe that won't be coming next week after all.

1/12/2008 11:39 PM  
Anonymous aplikowski said...

The multi-touch pad is nice, but now put an LCD screen under it and you have something really hot! Then layer on some haptic feedback to allow you to feel where your fingers are...

Sorry, I was so excited that I just passed out!

1/13/2008 8:49 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

LCD and feedback would be pretty awesome, but they'd also be pretty expensive, although the prospect of attaching an iPod Touch to your computer and using it as an input device is pretty intriguing....

The cost would be a killer, though. I'd pay $80-100 for a really nice touch panel, but $200-300 for one with video and feedback would be a hard sell.

1/13/2008 9:11 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

So I was pretty much wrong, as expected. Note that the Air does have a big multi-touch trackpad, though. It won't take much to provide that interface for a desktop, so I still think it's coming, just not right now.

1/15/2008 2:35 PM  

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