Weekend Edition: Manic gesticulation

Matthew JC. Powell
8 February, 2008
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I’ve spent the last week mouseless, eschewing a handheld pointer in favour of living and working completely on the trackpad of a MacBook Pro and the multi-touch screen of an iPod touch. I did this pretty much on a dare: last week I said the MacBook Air’s trackpad was large enough that I could imagine using it without the fallback of a mouse, and I decided to put that to the test.

I don’t have a MacBook Air yet, so my mouseless week had to be on a borrowed MacBook Pro (I’ll buy one when Apple updates the trackpad — soon … soon …). I’ve also made a point of using the iPod touch as much as possible, for instance when posting to the Australian Macworld forums.

And I’ve discovered a number of interesting things. For one, it seems reaching for the mouse has become muscle-memory for me and it took days to stop grabbing for the empty space on the desk. When using QuarkXPress in particular, the urge to use a mouse was so great I found myself attempting to manipulate the pointer with a cup of tea. It didn’t work — not even Earl Grey.

The other interesting thing I’ve discovered is that I can, once I’m used to it, get by with just the trackpad on the MacBook Pro — ergo, my theory about the utility of the MacBook Air’s larger and more capable trackpad probably holds. From an ergonomic perspective it’s nightmarish, but it’s handy to know that were I to be stranded on an island in the Pacific (such as Australia) with a MacBook Pro and no mouse, I could still use the Mac well enough to e-mail for help. If only I could find a reliable internet connection.

For another thing, the MacBook Pro’s trackpad is ever so slightly larger than the touch-sensitive area on an iPod touch — a little bit longer, but the same width. I don’t think this is a coincidence. My understanding is that the multi-touch chip controlling the trackpad on the MacBook Air is identical to the one in the iPod touch and iPhone. This could mean that Apple might be working on more touch-sensitive devices, as large as or even bigger than the trackpad on the MacBook Air. But I’m speculating now.

The other interesting thing I discovered is that once you get over the mouse muscle-memory, you quickly pick up gesture muscle-memory. And this, unfortunately, is a problem.

You see, while both devices support multi-touch gestures, they don’t support the same multi-touch gestures. And even when they do, the gestures aren’t necessarily consistent.

Take, for instance, scrolling. Reading a web page on the touch, you periodically flick a finger upwards on the screen to expose more of the document. On the MacBook Pro, you place two fingers on the trackpad and drag downwards to achieve the same result. On the iPod touch, you’re metaphorically manipulating the document itself with the gesture, while on the MacBook Pro you’re manipulating the scroll bar at the side of the window (effectively moving your view of the document up or down), so the same (or very similar) movement produces the exact opposite result. It’s surprising how often I’ve got mixed up on that when moving between devices.

But there’s more. In the Contacts app on the iPod touch and the iPhone, you can either flick within the page itself to move the list of contacts in the direction of the flick, or you can hold and drag the alphabetical index at the side, which causes the list to move in the opposite direction.

In the Cover Flow view of iTunes on the Mac, you drag the slider bar under the image to move the "covers" in the opposite direction to your gesture — that is, you move to the left, the covers move to the right to expose more of the covers on the left. On the iPod touch, you flick the covers to the left, they move to the left, exposing more covers on the right. It’s maddening.

It’ll get worse with the MacBook Air. On the MacBook Air, you can gesture sideways (the "three-finger swish") to move backwards and forwards when web browsing. In my admittedly limited exposure to the Air at the Expo, I came to quite enjoy the convenience of that — just like turning pages in a book. On the iPod touch it has zero effect. You move backwards and forwards by clicking the left and right arrows at the bottom of the screen.

Gesturing sideways does have an effect in some instances on the touch. Such as when moving between multiple home screens, or weather widgets for different cities, or different web pages you have open in Safari. Which means that it would be difficult to introduce the use of that gesture to navigate backwards and forwards on the touch without rethinking ways to make those other functions unique.

The obvious thing is the addition of extra fingers. But would it be a two-finger swish on the touch and a three-finger swish on the MacBook, or would you make it a three-finger swish for consistency? In which case, what does a two-finger swish do?

This may all seem like fairly idle speculation. And it is — this is the Weekend Edition, and the weekend is idle time. But Apple is a user-interface company, and user-interfaces are anything but idle business. There are two quite different user interface systems in use on Apple’s Mac and iPhone/iPod touch platforms. Remembering that the latter are, deep down, still Macs, and future devices in their family will be more like Macs not less, it’s important that these little wrinkles are at least thought about before we get too far down the wrong road.

Do I have the solution? No. If I did, I’d sell it to Apple and be wealthy. You’ve got a couple of lazy days ahead — see what you can come up with.

Bento prize winner. The winner of this week’s Reader Helper award as chosen by Australian Macworld staff is "mickdevlin". Congratulations, your copy of Bento by Filemaker will be on its way shortly.

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