Reports of Mouse’s Death Greatly Exaggerated

Hole: Live Through This “When I get what I want I never want it again.”
— Violet, Courtney Love

I’ve been clamoring for something better than the mouse for more than a decade. My ideal interface would unite action with result to eliminate the perceptual disconnect between moving my hand in one place and seeing the result in another. The iPhone was the first thing in all that time to feel like a real breakthrough along those lines, and I think there’s much personal computer interfaces can learn from touch on phones and tablets. That doesn’t mean copy them verbatim and proclaim previous paradigms completely invalid.

The second half of Erick Schonfeld’s TechCrunch article on Windows 8 [Windows 8 Is Gorgeous, But Is It More Than Just A Shell?] claims the mouse is dead. I beg to differ. Touch interfaces like this have their uses, but they also have limitations because they are content consumption oriented.  It’s not that we’re living in a post-mouse era: we’re living in a post-one-size-fits-all era, i.e., the Windows Everywhere Era.  Touch interfaces will not obliterate mice and trackpads for the following reasons.

IMPRECISION: The finger is an imprecise pointing device when pixels matter.  Although I don’t have fat fingers, it’s rather difficult for me to finger a single pixel on a good monitor with 100 pixels per inch–let alone the Retina Display’s 326 PPI. You can select an image that way, but you can’t draw one.  It’s not just being more precise; pointing devices can transform imprecise hand movements into a variety of precision levels on screen. I love mice that let me dial up the resolution for fine work or dial it down when flailing around in a game.

OBSTRUCTION: With touch interfaces, fingers block sight of a substantial number of pixels during touch activities, interfering with the realization of a realtime respond-where-you-act interface like touch. That’s not an issue when tapping a built-big tile to select something but it’s a big problem for precision movement or tracking.

INEFFICIENCY: Sometimes editing text requires switching between mouse and keyboard despite a keyboard jockey’s mastery of keyboard shortcuts. Current pointing devices live within the same range of motion as the keyboard so it’s a small, less disruptive gesture. Now imagine reaching from keyboard to the screen to drag-select or reposition a cursor; the gods of time-and-motion studies will not be pleased. Maybe laptops would fare better than desktops with Windows 8, but it also might add to the ergonomic train wreck they’ve become.

SMUDGINESS: People touching monitors is a huge pet peeve of mine. I’m a little more smudge tolerant with my iPhone, but I can’t imagine what my monitor would look like after just one working lunch on Windows 8. Just thinking about this makes me want to rush into the bathroom and wash my hands.

Touch technologies have existed for decades, and I think that the iPhone APIs ushered in this new era, not the hardware. Apple created a toolset to help developers deal with the strengths and weaknesses of touch that also provided a consistent experience for users across applications. Mac OS X Lion appears to learn from touch interfaces, not emulate them. Apple realizes that they need operating systems that match the devices they run on, perhaps a wisdom only earned by making both software and hardware. Microsoft should think very carefully about repeating their habitual strategic blunder of trying to make a one-size-fits-all Windows.

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