Apple Computers, Microsoft Keyboards (Keyboardists, Mousers, and Tapists)

June 09, 2010

I bought an iPad. It’s an experiment in trying to be more mobile. My goal is to find out if it can replace my laptop. I have my doubts so far, but it’s worth a shot. My main concern has been input.


I’m writing this on my iMac. I love the iMac. It’s a giant floating screen filled with awesome. The utility of Unix is there, lurking just beneath the surface, but in general the “computer” part of things has been abstracted away leaving only a gorgeous screen filled with pixels, speakers, a wireless keyboard and a tiny wireless mouse.

The keyboard and the mouse are the problem. For a long time, I strongly kept to Apple’s design aesthetic. My home office continues their design theme: grey, black and white with the occasional splash of color; clean lines, sparse usage. Everything is in its place and the main desk area has been largely empty save for the iMac, an Apple keyboard, an Apple mouse, and a wire heading down to the hidden backup drives. Quiet, sparse, minimalist but well designed and functional. Until recently.

My desk has changed. I’ve still got the big iMac sitting in the middle, but it’s surrounded by a bit more stuff. I’m now writing on a wired Microsoft Natural Keyboard 4000 (I almost pulled out my old school 1984 IBM keyboard, but a natural is just so nice), with a Microsoft IntelliPoint wired laser mouse (that’s right, I said wired) sitting next to it on an XTrac pad. On the other side there’s a big sketchbook, pens, markers, phone, iPad, soda, and various papers and handwritten notes.

Minimalism is a remarkable design aesthetic, but it’s easy to take it too far. We think of the iPhone or the iPad as very minimalist designs, but that’s only true in the hardware. Apple has removed as much hardware design as possible so that the focus is on the screen itself. Once the screen is on, it’s filled with colors, shapes and options. It’s well organized, but not very minimalistic.

I started with minimalism in my office, which is far easier than starting with something more complex. But I wasn’t getting as much done. Instead of sitting at my quiet desk, I would steal away to the basement with my laptop. Something wasn’t working. It was too quiet.

So I added a bit back. I ditched the wireless keyboard, which is a piece of crap for fast inputs. I ditched the wireless Apple mouse, which is even more of a piece of crap. I made sure that I had things I needed near me - books, a sketchpad, pens, etc. The difference has been profound. All of a sudden, my office feels much more usable. It feels like home.

There’s a balance between quiet and clutter. The best designed workspace is the most usable, not the most beautiful. This is true for both physical space, computer space, and input devices. My desk needs some additional items. It needs a good keyboard and mouse. It needs paper and pens, because some things you just have to work out on paper. It needs music. My computer desktop on the other hand is very clean. There are no gazillion files sitting on the desktop. Everything is hierarchically ordered and, where applicable, version controlled. On the other hand, under Expose my desktop looks like a mess. There’s something like 20 windows with tens of tabs in browsers, RSS readers and editors. There’s an interesting balance there.


Back to input devices. Apple can clearly design remarkably beautiful and highly usable hardware. They could do the same thing for keyboards and mice. So why the hell am I using a Microsoft keyboard and mouse??

This was really confounding me until I remembered Steve Jobs at the iPad debut. He said, “Apple is a mobile devices company. This is what we do.”

Well, that changes things.

See, ever since around 2000, when they were dreaming up the iPod, Apple has been transforming. When Jobs came back to Apple, they did some desktops and it got them back on the map. But on the whole, one can look at their Mac line of computers as a side project. Their bread and butter was the iPod (mobile music), the iPhone (mobile phone and stuff), and the iPad (mobile… computer). That, and really damn good design.

In fact, I would say if it weren’t for the remarkable influence of Johnny Ive, Apple wouldn’t look half as impressive as it does. I hope he got a lot of stock.

So ever since the beginning of the iPod, Apple has been working on hardware and software UIs designed specifically for on-the-go devices. That famous iPod clicky wheel can be used easily one handed while sitting on the subway looking out the window. Conversely, keyboards and mice are not exactly on-the-go devices, except maybe on a laptop. Even there Apple came up with a touchpad for their laptops that is at least ten times better than any other touchpad on a laptop. You can scroll, move fluidly, and click fluidly. It’s great. But for true, uh, on-the-go-ness, even a laptop doesn’t work. Apple realized that the most direct input is the screen itself. So they’ve been developing these gloriously fluid touch screens and the software UIs to back them. They pioneered this. They’re still the best at it. All of their competitors - and I’m glad Android is out there - have been playing catch up.

If this is Apple’s bread and butter, who cares about a keyboard and mouse? For their latest iteration of the mouse, they just threw a bit of touch sensitivity on top for scrolling and called it a day.

This presents a scary proposition for all the creative people that originated the push towards Mac computers. All of the writers, coders, designers, and artists out there that appreciated the simplicity and good design of Macs might be in for a surprise. For the longest time, these people could be characterized as either mousers or keyboardists. Apple thinks they’ve found a bigger market share though, one they can in part help create: tapists.

Keyboards and mice are each remarkably good at one thing. Keyboards provide exceptional tactile feedback for using lots of different pieces of input very, very fast. On a keyboard, you have at your disposal well over a hundred different keystrokes. Good keyboardists can use these to type 80 words a minute; some far, far faster. Watch a good keyboardist program, where they use ! @ $ & * ( ) = ; : < > / . ? with abandon and marvel at their speed. Watch someone good in Emacs and you might shed a tear at the sight.

On the other hand, a good mouser can be just as efficient at different tasks. A mouse provides a single very precise point (the cursor) of easily trackable movement. Most good mousers are trained from games. They can navigate around a screen to perform tasks with remarkable speed, their brain typically 3 or 4 steps ahead of the click they’re making at any moment. It can be an impressive sight.

Today, Apple and others are creating a new type of user. The tapist. A tapist simply touches the screen and it magically does what they want. Tapping has neither the tactile ability to provide multiple fast inputs nor precise single inputs. A tap is a big fat finger on the screen, one at a time. Almost nothing can be created this way. The form of input prevents a tapist from creating anything longer than a sentence or two, or from doing any complex task. It’s designed for Twitter, text, and facebook: consumption in one sentence snippets.

Apple and Google both think this is a remarkably large market share. Most of the population even. That’s sort of sad isn’t it? If the standard computer of the future is an iPad, how will someone learn to use a computer for complex tasks? Nevermind tinkering, which is what most people have been worried about. What about programming, writing, designing artful images in Photoshop, archiving photos and manipulating them (besides pinch and zoom), creating music, novels, or any of the other thousand complex creative things one can do with a computer. Already most kids don’t do any of these things. Instead they sit for hours on Facebook and write on each other’s walls.

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

John Adams

Maybe this lack will create a movement back to non-computer mediums. Maybe writers will use paper and pencil. Maybe drawing will be done with charcoal. Maybe photographers will go back to the darkroom. I doubt it though.

Maybe, over the next decade, these sorts of UIs will get so good that these sorts of complex manipulations are possible once again. Maybe they’ll be faster and easier, and the error correction for input will be so good that the computer will do what we expect it to do even if we didn’t get it quite right. I doubt that too.

Instead, I expect consumption of media will continue to rise in little Twitter-like snippets. The great exercises of humanity - the ones Adams mentions above - will be even more removed from most of the population. Thinking will continue to decline.

So, I’m hedging my bets on the iPad. I doubt it will replace my laptop, but I’m still going to keep it. It’s dead useful to find that recipe I want to cook while I’m in the kitchen. Just a couple of taps and it’s done.

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