A touching story

Here's why Apple's new desktop touch device is going to replace your mouse.

Read time 3min 50sec

The other day a friend asked why laptops are so impossible to use. As a laptop user, my interest was piqued: what's not to like about something that is portable, self-powered and just as powerful as a desktop computer?

He went on to explain that he'd purchased some laptops for his staff and though they did the job of doing the job, the postage stamp-sized trackpads were very uncomfortable to use.

I could have sneered and pointed out how I don't have that problem with my Macbook Pro, but instead I sympathised. It's true that most PC laptops have dreadfully tiny trackpads, with only a handful boasting larger-than-average track surfaces, and an even smaller subset are equipped with multi-touch technology.

Some computer users - Mac or PC-based - will argue that the desktop mouse is the superior pointing device. That a mouse can be used to play games, and has superior tracking performance. While there are cases where a rodent in the hand is better than a trackpad under finger, things are about to change.

The first fortunate ones to be exposed to that change are Apple users. Apple was first to equip its notebook computers with multi-touch trackpads - the technology is now standard on Macbooks and Macbook Pros. Then there's Apple's operating system, OS X, which uses Expos'e. This software feature allows users to quickly navigate between application windows, hide them, or show them all at once.

Before multi-touch trackpads came along, Expos'e was activated using dedicated hotkeys. Then, with the arrival of Apple's Unibody-generation Macbook Pro, the trackpads gained support for four-finger gestures. Now users could hide all their desktop windows by using four fingers to swipe up. All open applications could have their windows arranged on screen by swiping down, using four fingers, on the trackpad.

Some might think it's gimmicky, bringing a laptop's pointing device to a desktop computer, but it couldn't be further from the truth.

Christo van Gemert, journalist, ITWeb

These natural gestures joined a host of others Mac users had been enjoying on the older notebooks. Using two fingers to swipe vertically would scroll up or down, in a Web browser or document. Horizontal three-finger swipes would flip pages or skip slides. Tapping with two fingers would act as a right click.

It was an obvious coming-together of the right hardware and software. The functionality can even be extended: there's a bit of software called BetterTouchTool, for OS X, which lets users customise their multi-touch gestures. It's possible to add gestures that interpret various finger inputs as certain functions. For example, a three-finger swipe that scrolls to the bottom of a document, or simply jumps down a single page.

The options are nearly endless. You could have a five-button mouse with motorised scrolling, but the simplicity of a one-, two- or five-finger gesture simply comes more naturally.

That's where Apple's Magic Trackpad has the market cornered. Some might think it's gimmicky, bringing a laptop's pointing device to a desktop computer, but it couldn't be further from the truth.

It's larger than a conventional trackpad, meaning multi-finger gestures are easier to perform. Sitting next to the keyboard, it doesn't need to be moved around, which reduces the risk of RSI usually associated with a mouse. It's wireless, it doesn't need a special surface to work properly and the number of buttons is limited to how creative you are with your fingers.

A normal mouse points and clicks, but a multi-touch trackpad lets you execute commands by letting your fingers do the walking (if the Yellow Pages doesn't mind me paraphrasing).

Sadly, only Mac users will be able to take full advantage of the Magic Trackpad's abilities. Apple has only committed to supporting basic functionality in Windows, under Bootcamp.

Windows 7 finally has an interface to match OS X. In some cases it has even better window management tools and user interface gestures. All the ingredients are there for a multi-touch device, like the Magic Trackpad, to come along and revolutionise the way we navigate our computers.

But it's only be a matter of time before a coding genius writes a driver to unlock the Magic Trackpad's functionality in Microsoft's operating system, and that might be the very first nail in the coffin for the desktop mouse.

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