Apple’s Magic Trackpad – Just the start of the magic trick?

Apple press photo of the Magic Trackpad input device. A small aluminum pad next to a Bluetooth keyboard, with a hand on the pad.

Apple's new Magic Trackpad makes me wonder what it's really meant to connect with.

Photos of Apple’s new Magic Trackpad leaked a while ago. If it were any other company’s product, it’d have been a slam-dunk sneak peek. But this is Apple; nothing’s released until it’s released. Or at least officially announced.

Compare and contrast this with PC makers who indiscriminately spray new products into crowds of terrified consumers, or (God help us all) Microsoft. I sometimes wonder if Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is Tyler Durden from “Fight Club.” Tyler takes to the stage once or twice a year to show off “Exciting! Revolutionary! GAME-CHANGING!!!” new Microsoft software and hardware. He’s energetic! Aggressive! Confident! He has a PLAN!!!!!!!

…And then a month later, meek, rudderless Steve Ballmer watches the video in shock. I…I said that?!? It’s insane! I must be stopped! Lo and behold, nearly everything that Interesting Steve announced in the 2010 CES keynote has been scrapped.

Not Apple. Unless you want to counter-argue that maybe Steve Jobs’ Tyler Durden personality completely took over while he was in high school and never let go. If so, cool; let’s order a pitcher of drinks because we’ve hit upon a good topic for group discussion.

So: Magic Trackpad. It was released this morning, along with updates to the iMac line and a new Cinema Display. And, surprisingly, a new Apple AA battery charger whose main feature seems to be that after your batteries have been topped off, it draws 10% of the power of other AA chargers.

On its own, the Magic Trackpad is sort of an ordinary release. It’s a big notebook-style trackpad, built as a separate Bluetooth input device so that it can be used with desktops. Nice idea. I’ve had Wacom’s Bamboo tablet for a while now and I love it. Resting your hand on part of your desk and just tickling a surface is a quick and natural way to control the cursor, and you can set up the Bamboo with multitouch gestures for launching and switching apps, selecting tools…pretty much anything that a sane man could want.

A little trackpad like this is also a handy compromise for folks who sort of want a tablet input but can’t justify the expense. I use the Bamboo to sign documents and it’s also lets me “fingerpaint” edits to photos and artwork, either via my fingertips or a precision stylus.

Neat. The Magic Trackpad goes a little further in that it natively supports MacOS touch gestures. It’s not a “special” input device powered by unique drivers; it just is, so to speak.

Nope, I don’t have one yet but I expect I’ll have one shortly. So a hands-on review will have to wait until I get my hands on one.

Still, the existence of this device invites me to strap on the long, salt-and-pepper fake beard that I keep on a special peg next to the desk for just these sort of beard-stroking opportunities.

I think this device articulates their faith in multitouch interfaces. Across the board.

  1. It’s a “bridge” device that enables every MacOS device to have a multitouch input. If Apple were to develop more aggressive multitouch support for MacOS 10.7, they’d need to have this sort of device on the price list and out in the field. I don’t think that a multitouch revolution is necessarily appropriate for a desktop OS, but building a big, standalone trackpad gives MacOS engineers a certain amount of liberty to be bold.
  2. Bluetooth means that it’ll work with anything Apple’s got going. The fundamental connection between a human being and an iPad will always be “fingers on a screen.” But a Bluetooth multitouch surface expands the reach of the iPad by at least making it possible to (for example) tether your iPad to a conference room projector but control it via a pocketable $69 device. It also makes it easier to use the iPad as a home audio or video component.
  3. AppleTV just got realllllllllly interesting. Existing AppleTVs — the one Apple product you’ve forgotten about, the one that sits at the back of the class and never raises its hand — are MacOS devices. They’re controlled via IR remotes and thus they require line-of-site between the device and the operator. With the Magic Trackpad in the product lineup, Apple could completely reinvent the AppleTV as a device that hides somewhere behind your TV, runs a new flavor of iOS, and ships with a Magic Trackpad instead of a clickybutton remote.

Mind you, I’m not speculating about a new AppleTV that looks and feels like a TV/HDMI version of the iPad. I’m imagining something with a UI built for a TV screen, to be viewed and interacted with from ten feet away.

Even if we leave aside any changes to the AppleTV’s inputs or UI, the big benefit of moving AppleTV to iOS would be that it’d instantly allow the device to take advantage of the huge iOS development ecosystem. The work that iOS developers have put into iPhone and iPad apps could go into AppleTV apps as well. The biggest problem with the AppleTV has always been the tame and provincial nature of its feature set. Two months after Apple releases iOS dev tools for it, those problems would disappear.

And what’s the point of designing a brand-new, iOS-optimized, fast but power-saving A4 CPU if you’re not going to stick one inside everything you’ve got going?

It’s all speculation (which is why this is on my blog instead of Someplace Reputable). And the calmer, more rational line of thought is that Apple could transition AppleTV to iOS and the A4 processor without a new multitouch wireless input device. Still, the Magic Trackpad does inspire one to dream, doesn’t it?

28 replies
  1. Iain
    Iain says:

    I haven’t have the same success you’ve had with the Bamboo; I gave up on it after a week or so. It didn’t have the same feel as the laptop trackpad.

    I’m much more interested in the Magic Trackpad, since the Magic Mouse doesn’t work too well for me, either. There’s a disconnect between the mouse and the trackpad; you need a different number of fingers to do the same things.

  2. Andy Garfield
    Andy Garfield says:

    About the Apple TV, really interesting. I’m just really worrying about the longevity of that device because it’s never ever had a hardware update. You would think that it would have had some kind of clue as to their intentions on the site. This is the clue that I worry about most though: http://www.apple.com/macmini/#hero-7

  3. Jason R
    Jason R says:

    What are the chances this thing could allow some type of graffiti-style text input? To make iTunes purchases and fill out forms, one could write out text input instead of needing a keyboard.

  4. Mr Y
    Mr Y says:

    OK, so you put your new mac mini instead of Apple TV and buy 3 magic trackpads. This is the new game controller we all waiting for. Oh, there are no games that support it yet. Maybe port some game from the iPhone platform and use the new Game Center service? That start to look like a plan to me ;-)

  5. Tim
    Tim says:

    While an Apple TV running iOS makes sense. How about a dual-boot Mac mini. Connect it to your TV and boot into iOS. Connect it to a monitor and boot into Mac OS.

  6. faisal_q
    faisal_q says:

    Andy, great thoughts on launch day. I would add:

    3b) Presentation tool for wall mounted displays in a conference room. (GoogleIO could have used this) :-)

  7. Scott
    Scott says:

    i’ve been saying for some time now that transitioning the Apple TV to iOS is an obvious, natural evolution, but with one major sticking point: how to make a touch-based system work with a TV remote. i think you’re on to something — this could well be the missing link.

  8. Ludger
    Ludger says:

    Your article implies some kind of a pointer on iOS devices, doesn’t it? That is not going to happen, I am sure.

  9. Ihnatko
    Ihnatko says:

    @Ludger – If you mean “the iPad will accept this trackpad as an alternate input device,” then no. But I can see the _possibility_ of it becoming something akin to the external video dongle. IE, it’s not something that the device natively uses, but if a specific app wants to define how to use one if it’s hooked up, sure. Just as Keynote on the iPad doesn’t “mirror” displays but can use an external screen for the presentation.

  10. Stuee
    Stuee says:

    Thanks Andy. I got quite excited when I saw this device… for about 1 minute, until I remembered that it’s extremely unlikey Apple will write Windows drivers for it, just like the Magic Mouse.

    Given that Apple are in the business of making money, partly from selling computers that natively support dual-booting with Windows 7, isn’t it pretty short-sighted not to provide compatibility?

    I suppose if Windows PCs weren’t such a rarity it might be worth their while. Oh, no wait – there are hundreds of millions of them – that’s a VERY big market, a massive proportion of which will never switch to Mac OS.

    Come on Apple, drivers please – then I’ll gladly hand over my money for one or both of these devices.
    Until then, they remain irrelevant to me and millions of others.

  11. Bill Heald
    Bill Heald says:

    One thing that really intrigues me about this is related to something I’ve noticed about myself when I transition (pretty much daily) from my iMac to my MacBook Pro and back. I can’t help but notice how clunky my desktop interface (I use a Kensington track ball) seems after using the trackpad on the laptop. I especially notice it when surfing the web and navigating pages of text, and I really miss the trackpad. This new witchcraft might be a solution. I may have to try one out, but I’ll let Brother Ihnatko review it before I decide whether or not to take the plunge. Regardless, this is an interesting development.

  12. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this but this trackpad makes life a lot easier for developers testing apps in the iPhone/iPad emulator on desktop Macs.
    I wonder if that’s how this started – a tool for developers (or even built for in-house use) that has now been rolled out.

    I like the idea of this. My mouse tends to sit wherever I last had my hands on it and then has to belifted and moved after I finish typing. On the occasions when I leave it next to the keyboard I tend mainly to use it for gestures (it’s a Magic Mouse).

    The charger – I was about to buy one today and I’m glad I had second thoughts.

    One point though – this is $69 in the USA, it’s £59 here in the UK. That’s mightily expensive. What is Apple’s thinking with this pricing?

  13. Julio
    Julio says:

    This is pretty much the opening move in a transition from mouse-based navigation to touch-based navigation in MacOS. It’s one of those things that seems obvious in hindsight: multi-touch is a much more natural means of interacting with your computer, and when you factor in the powerful connections our brains make with physical gestures, it’s one less level of abstraction between us and what we want to do on our computers. The future is coming.

  14. iPhonzie
    iPhonzie says:

    IOS is by its very nature a direct interaction environment. Abstracting the interface with an external touch input device would require an overlaying pointer/cursor, which sounds problematic to me. Not that Apple can’t come up with a nifty way of implementing it, but external pointing devices are useless with iOS as it currently stands (note lack of mouse support with iPad docks).

    Additionaly, many iOS games assume accelerometer support. You would need that in the remote controller to make these work on an iOS based Apple TV.

    Finally, I already have 6 remote touch input devices in my house that control my TV, and they have accelerometer support – 4 iPhones, an iPod touch, and an iPad, controlling my Mac mini that feeds the 37″ screen with Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, EyeTV and more. If Apple TV evolves to an iOS device, I see these other iOS devices as more natural and complete input devices than the Magic Trackpad.

  15. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    @iPhonzie

    “external pointing devices are useless with iOS as it currently stands (note lack of mouse support with iPad docks”

    Really? Why is pointing at something on the iPad with a trackpad any different from pointing at something on a screen with a mouse? (or, indeed, a trackpad!)
    I think it would soon become second nature, but bear in mind we’re talking about occasional uses here, e.g. giving a lecture…

  16. Brent Watkins
    Brent Watkins says:

    I think the touchpad my herald a different integration.

    iOS in OS X

    Instead of Dashboard, what is a stroke of the F12 key launched an iOS environment and gave you access to your apps instead of widgets.

    This type of interface would be far more convenient than a mouse as an analog to the touch interface and would make many apps more useful at your desk with your iOS device tethered to the “mother-ship” via its little white cable.

  17. TQ White II
    TQ White II says:

    Andy,

    Please try it with a MacBook. For my day job, I use mine in desktop mode, extra monitor, keyboard, magic mouse. The trackpad is off on a pedestal, out of reach. I’d prefer to use a trackpad instead of the mouse. Maybe you could find out if it coexists nicely with an existing trackpad.

    thanks!!

  18. Kafka's Vault
    Kafka's Vault says:

    @Bill Heald

    After sales tax and exchange rates (Using RBS buy rate 1.47) the difference comes to £3.27

  19. Phil Earnhardt
    Phil Earnhardt says:

    I think Andy’s assessment of the magic trackpad is right on. I’m particularly happy that Apple issued a software update for laptop trackpads the same day they announced the product.

    I really like the two-finger touch as a means to do a “secondary tap”. I’ve never completely adapted to the lower left corner of the touchpad for that function, and I think I can learn two-finger much better.

    This product introduction also reminds me of Apple’s issues with the Flash UI. For the last month, I’ve been wrestling with the Flash code on the letour.fr website: lots of teeny tiny scroll areas, and you must move the cursor to the up and down buttons on the page: PITA. I’ve seen some Flash sites that allow scrolling with 2-finger gestures, but there is no consistent behavior there. And the Flash scrolling like Apple’s HTML scrolling does with nested scroll areas.

    The touchpad on Apple laptops and this new magic trackpad are high-performance devices. Apple is committed to having highly usable UI hardware and software. Whether or not you agree with Apple’s position on Flash, devices like this make it very clear why Apple has those concerns.

  20. Harry Henderson
    Harry Henderson says:

    I can lie back on the couch with a traditional remote in hand. Can’t do that with this Magic Trackpad.

  21. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Would you please consider including trackball comparison in your review? I love my 27in iMac but lifting and dragging the Magic Mouse to change the cursor location is tiresome. Ive been considering a trackball mouse but maybe the Magic Trackpad is the solution.

  22. Dabba Doo
    Dabba Doo says:

    @Michelle

    You might be moving your mouse across your mouse pad too slowly. I can make it across my 32 in screen in 2 trips across the mouse pad moving slowly but if I move the mouse quickly I can make it across the entire screen in the distance of half the mouse pad.

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