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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Who Would Have Thought an iPad Cursor Could Be So Much Fun?

I gasped when I first saw the iPad's new cursor—a little circle, a shape-shifting blob. Because for decades, cursors have been as cursors are. The prototype to the computer mouse as we know it today was first invented by Doug Engelbart in 1964, and with it the cursor by necessity. You can see it at work in the 1968 Mother of All Demos, given in San Francisco by Engelbart himself at the Association for Computing Machinery. The cursor in the demo looks not unlike the cursor on macOS today—thin and pointy.

This desktop cursor is largely static. Its form is contingent only on context—the type of thing below it. The size and shape of the thing over which it hovers is irrelevant. If an object is text, the cursor changes to an I beam, always the same size, always the same look.

Defaults matter, and this default, set some 60 years ago, has been hard to break. That is, until this new iPadOS update.

That's the Point

What if you were able to invent the cursor today? Start over? A rare opportunity in the world of computers, but the iPad and its operating system have had the strangest of trajectories.

In 2010 the iPad began life designed around a nub, the tip of a finger. Imprecise and fat and stubby. The iPad’s OS was built with large tap targets, in contrast to the relatively tiny buttons and icons of a mouse-based desktop OS.

Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs is infamously quoted from the iPhone product launch: "If you see a stylus, they blew it.” I reference this not to chide, but to illuminate how strong a design philosophy you must have to make something new. Even in 2010, the anti-stylus ethos still made absolute sense for a new platform. The goal: Make the best possible interface for navigating with a potato. The result: a kind of clumsy—but direct tactility that required no special tools or instructions, and was easy for everyone to use.

Years later, of course, Apple would go on to make a stylus called Pencil because the company could do it well. The $99 Pencil is a hyper-precise pointer, specialized, superb for artistic tasks. Sure, Apple made it with the world’s most awkward charging port, but then it refined the mechanism entirely in 2018 to a pitch-perfect magnetic click, a seamless wireless charge, a best-of-class stylus that’s always right where you need it—snapped to the top of your screen—with plenty of battery life.

The Pencil-as-refined-stylus delights. It's so well weighted, sits gladly in the hand, has little lag, and picks up on the slightest changes in pressure. But it works best in illustration software or photo editing. It feels ever so out of place in the general OS itself, an OS designed around potatoes—like using a laser to cut butter when all you need is a dull knife.

On Track

This is where the iPad’s support for the trackpad comes in—a middle ground between laser and potato, and a reinvention of Engelbart's pointiness. Apple has taken the desktop cursor’s familiar thin arrow and replaced it with a translucent circle. This circle has the ability to change form not only with context but with the “physicality” of the object beneath it.

Move the pointer above a button and the circle morphs into the button itself, "snapping" into it, enveloping it like an amoeba, causing it to glow in a pleasing way. What this means is that the usual precision of a trackpad isn’t required to get exact hits on navigational elements. If you own an Apple TV, you’re already familiar with this vibe—it’s how the cursor on the TV “jumps” from icon to icon with a kind of sticky momentum. Similarly, on the iPad home screen, you can “lazily” slam the cursor around and have it lock onto applications with an eerie telepathy not experienced on a desktop OS.

The cursor itself, too, has momentum. It continues to glide on the screen for just a few short milliseconds after you stop moving your finger on the trackpad. This sounds more annoying than it is in practice. (And you can modify almost all these behaviors to your liking in Settings > General > Trackpad, and Settings > Accessibility > Pointer.) What I’ve found is that this momentum creates a subtle design cohesion between scrolling and scroll bounce, selecting applications, locking onto buttons, and just generally moving things around the screen.

The iPad is gesture-dependent for multitasking and switching between applications. But those multifingered swipes have always seemed giant and ungainly, simian, and a bit hokey at best when you have to lift an arm up to the screen. Done on a trackpad, they’re suddenly efficient and nearly instantaneous. These gestures now feel, I suppose you could say, closer. The trackpad is always closer at hand than the screen; it sits on the same plane as the keyboard, further enhancing that sense of connection or perception between the OS and the user.

Which is odd considering how much a trackpad abstracts. A trackpad or mouse moves a disembodied thing on a remote surface. It's unintuitive. In the ‘90s, while in high school, I taught a class with a friend called Internet 101. And we quickly realized the first thing we had to teach the students (often decades older than us) was how to use a mouse. Watching them struggle was a revelation.

And yet somehow, the overall effect of using a trackpad with an iPad is more convincing than direct manipulation, less exhausting, and simply more fun. This is in part because the cursor lives in the same virtual space as the interface in a way our finger never can. It's a native part of the system. The cursor telegraphs what's to come—what may or may not happen if you tap. It highlights what is or isn't tappable, even. An old cursor became the same I beam over any size text. The new cursor becomes an I beam the size of the text field itself, so even if the field is empty, you sort of "know" what will happen and can begin to feel the underlying logic of the interface before you dive in.

The fun comes from the speed at which the OS responds to your gestures, the smoothness with which you can flip or riffle between entire applications. This is because of the 120-hertz screen refresh rate on all iPad Pros, which makes animation and scrolling feel more fluid. But it’s also a testament to the engineers and designers at Apple who have worked to minimize “edges” in the OS. You are never “scolded” by hitting a dead end—you reach a soft bounce at worst, and so, for me at least, exploration is encouraged. Everything feels like an object to be picked up, examined, and playfully thrown about.

Progressive Enhancement

I've been using the trackpad with my 2018 11-inch iPad Pro for the last four days, and I can't stop smiling. It's a boneheaded response, I know—to be delighted by something that feels so obvious and, many would say, regressive. But paths matter. And what's so strange about all of this is the multiple layers of redundancy you find on an iPad. You don't need the keyboard to type, you can type on the screen. You don't need the trackpad to navigate, you can pick up the Pencil and do the same. And if you lose that Pencil, who cares? The OS was designed potato-first, and so your dirty digits will work just fine. A bare iPad is like Monty Python's Black Knight; no arms, no legs, but the brain still works.

Thankfully, it's easy to snap all these pieces back on. And I'm glad the trackpad, along with its beautiful, playful new cursor, is now part of the package.

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