Vision and Execution: Apple’s Plan to Kill The Mouse

I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a fanboy. Maybe not so much an Apple fanboy as a software fanboy. My fascination with software goes back to the very first time I had a computer demonstrated to me as a kid, and today, Apple is probably the only company whose products give me that feeling of joy. It’s also an interesting company to follow if you’re interested in product development in general. So let’s have some fun and speculate a little bit about what might be waiting around the next corner.

A few years ago, Apple acquired a company called FingerWorks for its user interface technology. I thought the Fingerworks stuff looked really cool, and I’ve wondered why Apple hasn’t been moving forward more agressively with the acquired solutions. Now, I’m not an industry analyst, but that doesn’t mean I can still have a little theory about the approach Apple is using to introduce into the mainstream a new way of interacting with desktop computers.

Apple has an uncanny ability to both dream big and execute. I think Steve Jobs saw the potential of the Fingerworks approach immediately. I think Apple has been methodically at work moving towards what we will soon see, at least since 2005.

Right now, Apple is gradually introducing some needed changes in their operating system. They are preparing their software platform for the introduction of new hardware that lets us interact as directly with desktops and laptops as we now do with their tablets.

At the core of the changes to the user interaction in OS X is the building up of a language of multi-touch gestures. This and a slew of other changes seem to herald the coming of  mouse-less interaction: scroll bars are disappearing and the scrolling direction has been reversed (we now scroll by “pushing on the content”), full screen apps can be flicked between with your fingers, and so on.

By letting us practice with the new features for quite some time, Apple is making sure we’ll be ready to use the new hardware once it hits the stores. By then, we’ve also helped Apple debug the software.

I think the current “magic trackpad” is a simple device compared to what’s waiting around the corner. The mouse is old, and Apple is working to get rid of it once and for all. We’ve seen the revolution in interaction design that’s come about because of tablets and their support for gestures. Of course Apple wants us to be able to use what we’ve learned to do on the iPad on the laptop and desktop as well. After all, Apple’s success is based not just on building cool products, but on creating and evolving an entire system of products, channels and behaviors.

There’s been some speculation about touch screen iMacs. I don’t think that’s where Apple is going next. Touch screen desktops and laptops remain a bad idea for ergonomical reasons, unless a way can be found to work around those problems. A new kind of input device that rests on the desk and is big enough to fit two hands seems like a more healthy alternative. Of course, I wouldn’t cry if it turned out that Apple was developing a huge multi-touch screen like Jeff Han’s. I just think it’s less likely as a next step.

But what about typing? If we have both our hands on a big trackpad, where would we put the keyboard? Integrated into the trackpad would be really cool, if we could still get keys that depress enough to get a good writing experience. Writing on just a piece of glass is quite awful compared to a real keyboard. A likely first steps on laptops, though, might be a more advanced touchpad placed below the keyboard. Or, Apple might turn things around, and move forward with plans to build a keyboard with multitouch support. In fact, it turns out a combined keyboard and touchpad was one of the products that Fingerworks used to make, even if they lacked the design prowess of Apple. I’m guessing the visionaries from Fingerworks, John Elias and Wayne Westerman, are hard at work as we speak, overseeing the final steps of the resurrection of their concepts from almost a decade ago.

Well, enough speculation. Now we’ll just have to wait and see. Maybe I’d better run out and buy a spare mouse or two, while they’re still available.

Speaking of vision and execution:

  • Is there a unifying vision at play in your company?
  • If there is a vision, how is your current project taking you towards it?
  • What’s in it for you?

Author: Tobias Fors

I'm a software management consultant. I help other people succeed with software development. In my work, I help teams and organizations be more effective and ship software.

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