The Mac and the mouse cursor

Rob Rhyne (via DF) asked the question:

If you could take only one device with you, which one would you take? Ben Brooks or Federico Viticci would almost certainly choose an iPad.

However, I’d take a Mac. Exactly the 11-inch MacBook Air, which I’m using to write this article.

John Gruber responded:

If I could only use one device, it’d be a 13-inch MacBook Pro. I bet a lot of people would pick an iPhone, though.

I’d take a MacBook Pro. I do too much that depends on the extra horsepower. That said, it’d be awful difficult to get past the basic need for a phone. Either choice would leave me without some basic functionality. The Mac and iPhone together fill my every device need.

That said, I read about another interesting thought experiment, posed by Mark Hibber (Seeking Alpha):

It would be so simple, if Apple just allowed iOS to support a mouse or trackpad driven cursor. Then iPads and iPhones really could begin to replace PCs. Then iOS really could be a viable option for professionals. Then the iPhone could finally realize its potential.

Why is cursor support so important? If the reader hasn’t tried this experiment, just go ahead and try it and you’ll see what I mean. Connect your iPhone or iPad to an external monitor (either through an adapter or through AirPlay). Great, you now have a mirror of what you have on your little iOS device. Now try to use it for something other than watching a movie, such as using one of Apple’s productivity apps from iWork.

You’ll figure it out right away. It’s mostly an unworkable arrangement, because all your user inputs have to go through the iDevice. You can’t see what you’re doing on the external monitor, so you constantly have to glance down at the iOS device. That’s the whole beauty of the cursor: You can see where you’re pointing without looking at the pointing device.

To me, this gets to the core difference between macOS and iOS, between my MacBook Pro and my iPhone/iPad. The cursor is a useful placeholder. It marks my spot, but also lets me keep my eyes glued to the screen while I drag and drop and mouse around with my hands. This really becomes an issue when the screen gets too large for my lap.

I don’t see Apple getting rid of the mouse cursor model. My gut here? Apple will either keep the Mac and iPad separate, as it is now, or will migrate the mouse to the iPad (as Microsoft and others have done).

  • David Stewart

    It’s easy to say “allow iOS to support mouse input”, but it’s a lot hard to do well. Mouse-driven UIs are fundamentally different than touch UIs. The cleanest way to handle this is to essentially have two OSs or two Windowing environments, one for mouse and keyboard the other for touch. This is what Microsoft has tried. It’s still an awkward arrangement.

    I could see a system where there was a dock for the iPad and when you docked the iPad went into mouse and keyboard mode. The dock might have ports and maybe even an extra GPU to power multiple monitors. This strips the computer down to the basic CPU and storage which can be made extremely portable. This seems to be the natural evolution of the drive to shrink the Mac line and push peripheral customization via Thunderbolt and USB-C.

    • iOS already has some of the basics needed for a mouse-driven UI. In any text editor, you can hard press on the keyboard (on an iPad 2 fingers on the keyboard) and move the cursor around the text document.

      While there are some basic interface challenges (not sure if Apple as a solution to them) still there (switching apps with mouse, etc) I’d bet we’ll see at least a rudimentary support for mouse-driven UIs on iOS sooner then later…even if unofficially, like keyboards were at the beginning. Apple never talked about being able to use a USB keyboard via the USB-Thunderbolt cable early on, but it worked.

    • rick gregory

      But why alter the UI? Sure, it’s not optimized for mouse interaction but enabling mouse input* would help greatly when, for example, trying to place a text cursor in the middle of a word, etc. without any other changes.

      *obviously this isn’t really simple.

      • David Stewart

        They’ve already done a little of that with the Apple Pencil. It a bit easier because there isn’t actually a cursor, but it still allows more precise input.

        The issue is similar to the issue with the keyboard on the iPad Pro, it’s inconsistently supported, so what works in one app won’t necessarily work in another. I’m sure Apple has a lot of people working on merging all these input sources into a cohesive and elegant UI-system. My guess is that users will be eased into in over the course a few years with each release having a little more capability.

  • “Which one would I take?” has become a meaningless question to me. There’s no way I’m going to take just one device, because one is my phone and the other is everything else.

    As a developer yourself, you know there’s nothing so simple about mouse input as “allowing” it. That’s the sort of discussion you could add that would be meaningful, really.

    • James Hughes

      I know what you mean, but if you had to? If I had to, I’d keep my computer, no question. Be it iMac or MacBook Pro or Air etc. I could always go back to a dumb phone if I had to for the phone and sms.

      But there is no way iOS is near good enough for work. It maybe one day, but not now.

      • I guess. After a couple years to get out of my contract, I could use a feature phone. If they existed anymore. 🙂 But I’d miss out on lot I’d be incredibly disappointed in.

        Edit: I think people who haven’t tried it out much miss out on how incredibly useful Continuity, Hand Off and cross-platform sync are. I can type a few notes on the keyboard and view them anywhere. I can take phone calls on my iPad or computer if I’ve already got the headphones plugged in there. Etc, etc. There’s just a lot of niceties in having an iPhone and Mac (and, to a lesser degree, iPad).

  • john doofus

    Depending on what I’m doing, my answer would be iPhone or 13″ MacBook Pro. Never iPad.

    I like the iPad for what it is and its a truly wonderful device for people like my Mom, but I cannot envision it ever replacing the Mac for me.

  • freediverx

    I don’t see any way to successfully merge desktop and mobile OSs. Doing so would result in sacrificing functionality and usability in one way or another. You can’t optimize a GUI for BOTH touch input and mouse/trackpad use. Microsoft has tried and failed.

    A Swiss army knife might get you out of a jam in a pinch, but if you’re doing any serious work you’ll want to use real tools.

  • I would take a MacBook Pro 10 times out of 10. If I need to make calls I would use FaceTime or Google Voice.

  • Brian Dunning

    That’s a pretty bold prediction – they’ll either add mouse support or they won’t. Bold.