Dear Apple: don’t let a trackpad turn the iPad into a Mac

Good morning and congratulations on making it through another week. I had been planning on writing about some of the issues I had while writing my Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review — specifically my bafflement that Samsung is once again asking reviewers like me to be beta testers. It’s inconceivable that the company didn’t realize there were issues with the camera and also very strange that it didn’t so much as hint at a software update to me until the day before yesterday. I’ll say it again: never buy anything on the hope that future software updates will fix it. Wait.

But we covered it pretty well in The Vergecast coming out later today, so please give it a listen. Instead, to the surprise of absolutely nobody given my obsession with how companies are trying to get big-screen computers beyond the UX paradigms of the 1980s and 90s, I’m interested in an iPad rumor about a keyboard.

The news is simply that Apple is reportedly releasing an iPad keyboard with a trackpad later this year. It’s a good scoop from The Information. A good piece to read next is about something Jason Snell noticed in the iOS beta released earlier this month: better support for keyboard functions like modifier keys. A third thing to note is that Apple software boss Craig Federighi said, “If you like what you’ve seen us do with iPadOS, stay tuned, we’re going to keep working on it.”

If you’re wondering when this might happen, the Apple-o-sphere has all been working on the belief that Apple will be holding a Spring hardware announcement. There are too many rumored products to fit into one event, but a new iPad Pro and a new keyboard for it would definitely make the cut. Given all the recent tech event cancellations due to the coronavirus, however, Apple might be rethinking its plans right now.

In any case, I have many thoughts about the iPad — which you might have guessed since I’ve been writing about the iPad’s evolution as a computer so often over the past few years. I would love to speculate on the physical shape and design of the keyboard, but I think that’s better left until later, when we have a better idea of what it might look like.

Instead, I just want to point out that the iPad is an OS that is currently hostile to mouse input. I don’t mean that as a criticism, but I do think it’s just stating facts. I know there are people who have enabled the “AssistiveTouch” mouse feature, but what it mainly does is let you emulate your finger taps with a mouse. That means it’s not actually all that helpful with two things that mice excel at: tapping tiny UI buttons and working with text.

I’m on record as thinking that Apple’s recent attempts to improve text manipulation like selecting, copying, pasting, and even cursor placement are not very good. And since AssistiveTouch currently only supports acting like a finger, it doesn’t help.

I bring this up because I have a radical idea: what if the only thing trackpad support brings to the iPad is better text manipulation? I actually think that is the right move for Apple, at least to start.

With the new iPadOS last year, Apple was incredibly ambitious. It added all sorts of new ideas and interaction models to the UI, some of which were confusing. In my original review, I gave Apple credit for finally allowing the iPad to become complicated and I stand by that. But I also believe that it’s not intuitive because its features can’t be progressively learned over time — you basically have to watch or read tutorials, which is incredibly un-Apple-like.

I bring all this up because right now the iPad has a lot going on with its overall user interface and I sort of feel that the last thing Apple should do is add yet another variable to the mix. Unless Apple is planning its second major re-think of how we interact with the iPad in two years, it’s just too much of a burden to put on users.

Because, as I’ve said before, using a mouse is fundamentally a weird thing to do — it’s actually a level of abstraction beyond just touching the display. It only feels “intuitive” because so many of us learned to use one first, and because “desktop” operating systems do such a good job of progressively teaching you new skills as you use them. They’re consistent and learnable in a way the iPad’s more advanced features simply aren’t.

I don’t want Apple to fall back on the crutch of just using desktop OS paradigms to solve the iPad’s user interface intuitiveness problem. The last thing we should want is for the iPad to turn into a Mac. It’s on a different path and it would be a shame to have those ideas tossed out the window just so we can have more traditional windows on the iPad.

But I’m not anti-trackpad. I do think it would be a huge help for text selection and it would allow some app developers to create smaller touch targets on their apps. Plus, and this may be anathema to some, the iPad makes a lot of use of right-click style actions now (just long press to see them), and a trackpad could help with that too

If you haven’t done so in awhile, go on and watch Steve Jobs’ seminal iPhone introduction. Pay special attention to how he talks about styluses and fingers. It’s easy to forget now, but the iPhone was a radical reinvention of user interfaces compared to what most people had used. Only a tiny sliver of apps on smartphones were designed to be used with a finger — shout out to SnapperMail, my favorite email app for the Treo and the subject of a wonderful 2003 Walt Mossberg review.

None of the smartphone operating systems before the iPhone were optimized for fingers, though. They all required a stylus or physical buttons to get around. The iPhone UI was revolutionary because it just had one button — the home button — and it was designed from the ground-up to be touched.

The iPad continued that legacy, just on a big screen. Adding a trackpad to that seems like a good idea, but I dearly hope it doesn’t take away from all the benefits we get from a purely touchscreen interface. We already have the Mac, the iPad doesn’t need to turn into one too.