iPad has a mouse pointer. That's a big deal.

Written by BradzTech on Mar 29, 2020

The latest update to Apple's iPadOS brought full mouse support to the iPad, and the newly revised iPad Pro will be available with a keyboard + trackpad attachment. But why has it taken a full decade to support this well-established feature in the world of computing?

We often take the computer mouse for granted. The truth is that the precision afforded by such a device enables much more productive use of a computer. Mouse acceleration means that one can move a mouse rapidly for the pointer to travel a long distance, but also be accurate down to the pixel by moving more carefully. We don't usually think about this every time we rapidly move to the taskbar or select a few choice words of text.

Now, take a touchscreen device. Highly precise movements become far more cumbersome, as one cannot see the screen under their own finger. Large movements also suffer due to the fatigue of reaching out and moving your finger all around a screen.

Mouse Support

The iPad is now gaining support for external mice (or trackpads). Any iPad owner who can upgrade to the latest iPadOS 13.4 can use this feature.

This functionality is not entirely new. Several months ago, the iPadOS 13.0 update brought mouse support to the iPad, but only for accessibility reasons. It was intended only for those with a disability preventing them from using the touchscreen fully. It used a giant "pointer" that didn't work amazingly well. At the time, I had guessed this was on purpose; Apple didn't want the majority of users suddenly forgoing the iPad's multitouch interface they had worked so hard on.

But under a year later, the mouse support has evolved beyond a mere accessibility feature. It now has a more precise mouse pointer, though still a circular one as opposed to the typical triangular pointer on traditional computers. This choice is to reinforce that the pointer is simulating touches on the screen. The pointer also changes shape depending on the context. It already works pretty well, though some apps still need to make some updates.

Apple also unveiled the 4th generation iPad Pro in March. Alongside it, they released the Magic Keyboard for iPad (2nd generation), which now includes a trackpad.

The 2010s

Let's take a step back to the original iPad's inception in April 2010. At that point in time, it was clear the iPad was an insufficient replacement for a "regular" personal computer. In fact, it required a computer with iTunes to even set it up.

That wasn't the point, though. The original iPad was positioned as a computer supplement. While it had some similar functions, such as browsing the web, playing games, and watching videos, it performed these functions in different ways. In addition to being far more portable than most PCs, complete with longer battery life, its shining feature was a multi-touch interface. Apple must have deemed this was the optimal choice for ease of use:

"What we want to do is we want to put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes..." -- Steve Jobs, 1983

The iPad has evolved significantly since that first incarnation. It moved ahead rapidly for the former half of the decade, both in terms of hardware and software, establishing itself as the dominant force in the tablet world. As the initial wave of progress (and sales) began to slow down in late 2015, Apple released the first "iPad Pro".

Without recounting the entire history, the standard iPad generally slowed down in terms of innovation and eventually also had a price cut to today's $329. The iPad Pro, meanwhile, has barreled ahead in terms of features, but also price, now starting at $799. Add that new Magic Keyboard, and you're looking at a price range of $1099 to $1999.

Collision Course

You might see that price range and think, wow, I could just get a Mac for the price. Specifically, the MacBook Air's March 2020 refresh is a significant improvement over the previous version. Starting at $999, it's actually more economical than the iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard.

For a while now, Apple has denied that they would merge iPad and Mac. But I believe it is becoming increasingly clear that this is where the company is going.

Take a look at Microsoft. In 2013, the company began developing the Surface Pro line of products. These were tablets that ran the same, full version of Windows as traditional laptops, and were thereby compatible with all the same applications. They also sold an attachable keyboard/trackpad type cover. These points gave Microsoft a huge selling point over the iPad.

With the 2020 iPad Pro, Apple is taking a very similar approach as Microsoft did 7 years ago. Are they admitting they were wrong? Not necessarily. One could argue that Microsoft's handling of the touchscreen was sloppy. With Windows 8, they pushed hard for laptops across the board to adopt touchscreen interfaces. Most applications were designed for keyboard/mouse and did not translate well to touch, leading to a poor reception for Windows 8.

On the other hand, Apple has committed to not adding touchscreens to any Mac. While they undoubtedly lost some potential customers over this decision, this number may shrink as Apple increasingly pushes the iPad Pro as a full computer.

I think what happened here, is Apple has shown its cards. It is trying to rebuild the entire computing experience. It started with a relatively basic device that forced all users toward its vision of the touch-based future. Now that the iPad's applications are becoming well-established, Apple is building back in traditional computer functionalities like mouse support, to help the iPad apply to a larger audience.

The result is, in my opinion, that the iPad does, indeed, have a much better touch interface than Windows. Apple's strategy of building a separate system from the ground up has paid off in that respect. The question remaining to be seen, is can they continue to convince traditional computer users that an iPad is all they need?

Moving Forward

I think the iPad will kill the Mac, and mouse support brings us one step closer. It's still a long while away, as Macs are still mandatory for certain professional applications, including software development. Apple, bring Xcode to the iPad, and then we'll talk.

The Mac has recently gained the ability to directly run iPad apps through Catalyst. Mac has also become increasingly locked down, both in terms of hardware (repairability) and software (macOS Catalina banned 32-bit apps, and apps must be signed by a paying Apple Developer). These are not good things, but they do bring the Mac more in line with iPad. While I'm not a fan of Apple's every move, they undoubtedly have a strong pull in the industry. I really wonder how soon the "computer" as we know it might be replaced with something else.

For now, the Mac is here to stay, but iPad Pro is shaping up to be a full-fledged alternative for artists and notetakers who value the touch-based, easy to use system. I will be watching closely to see if the iPad continues to convert traditional computer users to Apple's "computer" of the future.

About BradzTech

Welcome! I'm BradzTech, a Computer Science student at Rochester Institute of Technology. I am passionate about computers and analyzing the latest happenings in the rapidly developing modern field of technology, specifically, using it to help people. I share my thoughts on Twitter and, occasionally, here on my blog. Learn more about me.