Saturday, April 14, 2007

Apple to rethink scrolling and mice?

Two of Apple's hardware patent filings have made the news this Friday.

The first, discovered by AppleInsider, describes a new Mighty Mouse design that ditches the problematic scroll ball, and lets the user switch between a "traditional" (cursor control) mode and a "pan/scroll" mode by adjusting the position of the fingers holding the mouse. In the latter mode, mouse movement would translate into scrolling, and the pointer would not move.

It may sound like a nice idea at first, but it has some serious problems. First of all, while the current two hand positions that let users choose between "right" and "left" clicking are fine by me, apparently some users find it confusing. I'm not sure if introducing yet other hand positions for switching between yet other modes is a good idea.

The "scrolling mode" itself also leaves me scratching my head. It's nothing new: many traditional scroll-wheel mice have such a mode which you can enter and exit by pressing the scroll wheel. I use such a mouse at work, and I hardly ever use that feature.

Modes are bad. I've been conditioned all my life to using the mouse to point; now I'd be supposed to use the same motion for scrolling. To me, the concept of moving the mouse for anything other than moving the pointer is totally alien. It's like using the steering wheel to shift gears.

When I scroll, I expect to have my mouse remain stationary. And I don't want to readjust my hand position every time I want to scroll. So thanks, but no thanks.

I think all Apple needs to do is, really, just fix the damn scroll ball, so that it works and keeps working. Perhaps a new design should avoid the use of moving parts. But how would that be possible?

One idea that Apple was toying with (and filed a patent for) was the rotary wheel mouse, which would have featured an iPod-like wheel on top of a mouse. The patent application itself starts by dissing traditional scroll wheels in order to establish the superiority of the proposed solution. Ironically, its arguments also stand valid against the scroll ball solution Apple eventually adopted:

the user must scroll, pick up a finger, scroll, pick up a finger, etc. This takes time and can be an annoyance to a user. In addition, because a portion of the wheel protrudes above the top surface of the mouse, inadvertent or accidental scrolling may occur when one of the two buttons is activated.
The rotary wheel would have allowed lengthy, continuous scrolling, without lifting a finger. Note how neither the Mighty Mouse nor the new "dual-mode" mouse can do that.

So what was wrong with the rotary mouse? Simple: it would let you scroll either only vertically or only horizontally, just like traditional scroll wheel mice. This is probably why the idea was ditched, and the omnidirectional scroll ball emerged as a solution. At least for the time being.

Incidentally, this is why I don't think today's other hardware patent filing, the one about yet another iPod-esque rotary wheel put on a keyboard, is going to go anywhere.

I think rotary wheels are on their way out anyway. Looks like the iPhone won't have one, not even a touch-screen implementation featured in yet another patent filing. And I think it's a safe bet that the iPhone's interface will eventually, over the next three or four years, trickle down all the way to the iPod nano.

So, I think Apple should go back to the drawing board if it wants to dump the scroll ball. I have some suggestions, and I'll post them soon. Stay tuned!

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