Apple’s four-fingered salute to its users

David Braue
20 October, 2008
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Apple has a way of forcing everybody to do things its way – mainly by designing great products that we want enough to give up our old standby technologies – but its decision to abandon FireWire in its new MacBooks, coupled with its shift to an as-yet proprietary standard for external displays, shows the company is taking this approach to new heights.

Furore over the dismissal of FireWire has been particularly loud, since FireWire is closely tied to video camera downloading and many customers now have to choose between buying a new MacBook, or buying a new video camera.

Even worse, FireWire hard drives have clear performance advantages over their USB2 brethren, which – as I found during a recent review of a dual FireWire/USB2 hard drive – choke handily when fed large files.

I raised this question during a Friday briefing with Apple, where I got to go all touchy-feely with the new MacBooks (under the stern eye of Apple’s friendly but ever-watchful tech guys, of course). Their answer was, something along the lines of “you were probably transferring large files” and move on to another topic – discussing how shiny the new screen was, I think.

Yes, I was transferring a large file – just like the massive video files that people regularly make and transfer when doing videos, and which they store on external drives for the express purpose of NOT clogging up their main system. If you’re doing video editing in the future and use this setup, lack of FireWire basically means that video editing will happen half as quickly.

Perhaps, in time, we’ll learn that Apple’s decision was good for us, just like its decision to spare us the agony of spending $30 more on our MacBooks to get Blu-ray capabilities (aren’t they considerate!?). Yet Apple is happy to do away with industry-standard external display ports so can could squeeze its MacBooks into ever thinner cases – and squeeze customers for a $45 adapter to make Mini DisplayPort jacks drive DVI or VGA screens (in other words, 99.99999% of the monitors on the market).

Sure, physical technology limits are real, and Apple has had to make some compromises in the name of sexiness as its MacBooks get progressively thinner, lighter, and better built. It’s sort of like that friend everybody who has, who has a few extra kilos after Christmas and has to suck in their swelling gut to fit into those new jeans that came as a gift.

Over the years, Apple has shown time and again that it’s more than willing to be like that best friend, sorting through your closet and throwing out those old clothes you think you’re going to wear again some day, but know you never will. “I swear I’m going to get into those jeans I wore back in 1986,” you protest, but with a firm shake of the head and a flick of the wrist, they are finally lost in the Bin of Reality.

It has happened many times in the past: Apple was believed crazy to do away with the 3.5-inch floppy when the iMac was first introduced, for example. Ditto the removal of legacy serial and parallel ports in favour of USB. And Apple’s move away from proprietary CPUs instantly deprecated many peoples’ old equipment and software, but Rosetta softened the blow.

Apple’s decision to exclude the DVD drive from its MacBook air is the most recent example: “honestly,” Steve might as well have been saying, “when was the last time you actually wore that old bright-yellow jumper with the tiramisu stain on it?” Perhaps real-world MacBook air users can enlighten us as to how much they miss their drive, but I’m guessing it’s really not that much.

So, despite the performance hit and the immediate obsolescence of countless peripherals, perhaps we should thank Apple for finally getting us to look forward again. FireWire 800 is by all accounts blistering fast, and soon-to-appear USB 3.0 will be kind-of, sort-of, nearly as fast, so by the time that technology comes out next year, we shouldn’t really miss FireWire that much. Right?

What struck me the most about the new MacBooks, however, wasn’t just how Apple is paternistically guiding us away from technologies it has decided we don’t need anymore – but how, slowly and steadily, it is changing the way we work. And I’m not talking about adding new features to iWork here.

I’m talking about glass – and, specifically, the new glass touchpad on the MacBooks. I have played with them, and the experience of a larger touchpad is indeed nice. The entire touchpad presses down as a mouse click, rather than actually having buttons – another thing Apple has branded passé – but perhaps the most disruptive thing is the ever-expanding array of finger signs the Mac understands.

If you thought it was cool to scroll and zoom with two fingers (a marked improvement to the usual one and two-fingered gestures many of us give our computers with some regularity), you’ll love the new ones. Pinch two fingers and twist your hand to rotate images, use three fingers to flip through photos one at a time, or now use four fingers to open up Exposé (“it’s like pushing everything off your desktop to do your work”, the Apple guys told me) or open the app switcher.

Yet as I watched the Apple tech guy carefully line up his four fingers so they all touch at the same time (try it – it’s harder than you think), then carefully run them across the trackpad, what I actually began thinking about these latest four-finger gestures is that they are totally unnecessary, fabricated features designed to show off the trackpad’s sensitivity and Apple’s software prowess.

Is it really that complicated to press F9 or Option-TAB, like Mac users do all the time? It seems harder to me to think “wait, that’s a three-finger gesture, or was it a four-finger gesture”?

Adding so many gestures is creating an interface vocabulary that differentiates Apple’s user interface in some extremely proprietary ways. As the vocabulary of hand gestures expands even more, MacBook users will learn them – and find themselves utterly unable to go back to a normal mouse with just a couple of buttons. We will, in a word, have mutated into fanboys who rely Apple not only to tell us what our computers do and don’t need, but exactly what special hand signs we need to interact with them.

I’m reminded of the end of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, where that guy steps out and does the Kodály Method signs for the five signature tones that the humans use to communicate with the aliens. Apple’s user interface designers seem to have been motivated by this type of supposedly natural interface, and it makes me wonder whether the trackpad is actually just a way of initiating users into what is effectively becoming a secret society with its own handshake.

It can only be a matter of time before the thumb, and the second hand, and perhaps even a foot or two, will also become involved. Could it be long before opening a file requires you to trace three fingers and the tip of your nose in a big ‘O’ shape around the glass trackpad surface? Perhaps Apple will even seek to appease critics (yes, I am serious) by releasing a MDP-to-finger-to-FireWire adapter using body data transfer technology (serious, not so much).

Spock, look out: fingers aren’t just for pressing keys anymore. Fingerprint readers already know how to differentiate one finger from another — so we could theoretically see all sorts of complicated gestures requiring the use of specific fingers, or other body parts.

Where will it end? The mind shudders (or perhaps just the fingers do) with the possibilities.

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