Weekend Edition: padding

Matthew JC. Powell
1 February, 2008
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It’s funny how quickly you become addicted to new toys. I used the new multi-touch trackpad on the MacBook Air for maybe an hour all-up during the Expo in San Francisco, and already I find myself trying to use the same gestures on my old PowerBook G4. That machine doesn’t even support two-finger tapping or scrolling, much less the zoom, rotate and three-fingered swipe gestures of the new kid on the block.

Some have criticised the three-finger gesture in particular as counter-intuitive. This may be so, for them, but not for me.

(Out in the real world, intuitive behaviours and learned behaviours are two different things. A newborn baby breastfeeding is intuitive, walking is learned. In technological terms, "intuitive" really means "easy to learn". If you have to stop, even for a moment, and figure out how something works, that’s not intuitive. The nearest thing technology offers to intuitive is a hammer. Big. Heavy. Whack. Grunt. Everything else is learned.)

Back in the early years of graphical user interfaces there was much debate about what was intuitive and what was not. Authoritative White Papers — and many of them — were composed extolling the virtues of a single-butoon mouse on the one hand and a two-button mouse on the other. Both made a good case, and both were wrong. Neither approach is intuitive at all. Case in point: when I was teaching my father how to use his first Mac, I instructed him to "move the mouse up to the top-left corner of the screen" — and he proceeded to lift the mouse off the desk and place it on the monitor. He’s not stupid by any measure — using a square object on a desk to move an arrow on a screen is learned behaviour and he missed the metaphor.

Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes.

However intuitive or non-intuitive you thought a single-button mouse was, in the end we’ve pretty much all learned to use a two-button mouse, because the technology demands it — the system is too complex for a single-button mouse to handle all the tasks we ask of it. And just as we learned the two-button mouse and then the two-finger trackpad, we’ll learn what to do with that third finger.

For me, in particular, it’s an easy gesture because the three-finger gesture is primarily used in web surfing, to page back and forwards. As an old-media hack from way back, this makes reading the web much more like reading a book. When I’m reading a book, I use three fingers to turn the pages (mainly because I lack distinct fingerprints and therefore need more fingers to get a grip). So three fingers to swipe back and forth is easy. To me. YMMV.

I’ve also, since I got an iPod touch, become very accustomed to using the single-finger swipe on that device, as well as the two-finger pinch gesture for zooming in and out. None of it is intuitive by any means, but it’s all very easily learned.

And now that I’ve learned it, it’s hard, as Yoda put it, to unlearn what I have learned.

So I’m back on my PowerBook’s trackpad, gesturing uselessly with three fingers while the mouse pointer leaps about wildly on the screen, trying desperately to figure out what the heck I want it to do. I’ve quickly learned a new one-finger gesture which I don’t think the computer quite understands.

The PowerBook’s trackpad is not merely less functional than the MacBook Air’s, it’s considerably smaller. When I commute to Melbourne, away from my office setup in Sydney, I carry a couple of mice with me — one cordless, one wired. The cordless offers me freedom fro desktop clutter, but the wired one works more reliably — especially at airports, for some reason. I can get away with using the trackpad on the PowerBook for short periods of time, but for anything particularly serious like Photoshop or Quark it’s near useless. Too much lifting the finger and hoping you don’t lose the mouse pointer when you put it back down. You can get more distance by setting the acceleration higher, but you lose fine control. It’s clumsy.

With the MacBook Air, however, I could quite easily move the mouse from one corner of the screen almost all the way to the other, without lifting my finger off the trackpad, and with quite a good level of control. I found, after not a very long while of using the MacBook Air, that I didn’t miss a mouse at all. In fact, I felt I could quite happily use this system permanently and do away with a mouse completely. That may not save much actual weight in my backpack on those Melbourne commutes, but it would save some bulk and lumpiness.

Of course, the MacBook Air is not the machine for me. I need a genuine desktop replacement, and the MBA is not that.

But a MacBook Pro, with that trackpad? Bring it on.

Prize winner. The Help and Tips forum has been bubbling away nicely, and it’s good to see quite a few people joining in to help their fellow Mac users, Sean found it difficult to choose a "Reader Helper of the Week," mainly because not many people are coming back to the forum after they’ve tried the advice of other readers and saying whether or not it helped. Something to bear in mind. Anyway, for our inaugural winner of the Filemaker Bento "Reader Helper of the Week" award, Sean selected one of our first and most active members, TLCAUS, for his enthusiasm to get in there and offer help where needed. Congrats, TLCAUS, your prize will be with you presently.

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