Giving the finger to the mouse
OK, Steve just killed Flash, but did you see the really big news buried in the six-pointed death knell?
In his fifth point about touch/mouse/hover (our lament since iPhone came out), Steve notes that Flash was “designed for PCs using mice and that Flash content would need to be rewritten for touch.” In his conclusion, he puts a finer point on it saying, “Flash was created during the PC era — for PCs and mice.” This is some seriously intentional past-tense, and is meant to be read, “This is the era of mobile and touch.”
Steve and Apple have been notorious for picking up technologies before their competition and then dropping them just as fast. They had floppy drives, double floppy drives, and then, with the iMac, they dropped floppies completely, together with legacy ports like SCSI and serial. People actually got upset! But now who can say what they would do with a 1.4mb storage device?
Well, the mouse—the peripheral that started it all—is going to go the way of the floppy disc, too. Apple grabbed the mouse by the tail from Xerox and ushered in the PC revolution 30 years ago. They’ve even stood by their mice, stubbornly holding to simplicity and beauty where most made mice into eight-headed, mangled desk-vermin.
The death of the mouse makes perfect sense. It is an abstraction, a thick layer of separation between user and object. The only thing it has on touch is accuracy (down to the pixel). One might say hover is a benefit, but I’d argue that hover is a technical hurdle for touch, though ultimately a natural extension. With multi-touch, the possibilities explode. Nobs can be turned (the mouse was never good at curves). Drawing can be done on the screen (holy meat-brush-stylus, Batman). Awkward key commands can be dropped for gestures. The physical nature of touch will also improve the GUI metaphor, extending the usable space to infinity rather than being confined to the pixel dimensions of the screen (the screen will be a portal to dragging and pulling content, not a container for it).
I expect that I just set up my last desktop computer to arrive with a mouse and a touch-less screen.
Let’s remember and celebrate the mouse (and its virtual avatar, the cursor) for all that it’s done—the zillions of pixelated arrows in print ads, the cute anthropomorphic illustrations, the internet—and forgive it the carpal tunnel syndrome.
Update 2010 07 27: Apple has rung the bell again for the mouse, launching the Magic Trackpad, a large wireless touch pad that brings the laptop’s trackpad to the PC.
Update 2011 08 08: Almost a year since the Magic Trackpad release, Phill Schiller in the WWDC keynote spoke about killing scroll bars because they’re for mice (how useless!) and later said you can ‘tap’ on a button. They’re building in more and more multi-touch. The mouse is being actively displaced.