Apple’s new iPadOS 13.4 adds improved support for trackpads together with a shiny new cursor.

I was blown away WHEN I first saw the iPad’s new cursor—a small circle, a shapeshifting blob. Because for years, cursors have been as cursors are. The prototype to the computer mouse as we recognize it today was first designed by Doug Engelbart in 1964, and with it the cursor by need. You can see it at use in the 1968 Mother of All Demos, presented in San Francisco by Engelbart at the Association for Computing Machinery. The cursor in the demonstration looks not unlike the cursor on macOS today—pointy and thin.

This desktop cursor is mainly static. It’s form is dependent only on context—the type of thing below it. The shape and size of the thing over which it hovers is unrelated. If an object is text, the cursor turns into an I beam, always the same look, always the same size.

Defaults matter, and this default, established some sixty years ago, has been hard to stop. That is, until this new iPadOS upgrade.

That’s the Point

What if you were able to make the cursor today? Start again? A rare chance in the world of computers, but the iPad and its operating system have had the weirdest of trajectories.

In 2010, the iPad started life designed around an essence, the tip of a finger. Imprecise and stubby and fat. The iPad’s OS was conceived with large tap targets, in comparison to the moderately small buttons and icons of a mouse-based desktop OS.

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Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs is disreputably quoted from the iPad product launch: “If you see a stylus, they blew it.” I mention this not to chide, but to brighten how strong a design philosophy you must have to make something novel. In 2010, an anti-stylus attitude made absolute sense for a new platform. The goal: Make the best imaginable interface for navigating with a potato. The result: A kind of awkward—but direct tactility that needed no special instructions or tools, and was simple for everyone to use.

After many years, of course, Apple would go on to make a stylus called Pencil because the company could do it really well. The $99 Pencil is a hyper accurate pointer, specialized, superb for artistic jobs. Sure, Apple made it with the world’s most uncomfortable charging port, but then refined the mechanism completely in 2018 to a pitch-perfect magnetic click, a smooth wireless charge, a best-of-class stylus that’s always accurate where you need it—snapped to the top of your screen—with lots of battery life.

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

On Right Track

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

Hover the pointer over a button and the circle adapts into the button itself, “snapping” into it, inclosing it like an amoeba, causing it to shine in a pleasing way. What this means is the normal precision of a trackpad isn’t needed to get exact hits on navigational elements. If you have an Apple TV, you’re already acquainted with this vibe—it’s how the cursor on the TV “hops” from icon to icon with a kind of sticky motion. Likewise, on the iPad home screen, you can “lazily” slam the cursor around and have it lock onto applications with a peculiar telepathy not experienced on a desktop OS.

The cursor itself, also, has momentum. It continues to slide on the screen for just a short millisecond after you stop moving your finger on the trackpad. This sounds more irritating than it is in practice (and you can change almost all these behaviors to your preferences in Settings > General > Trackpad, and Settings > Accessibility > Pointer), and what I’ve discovered is that this momentum makes a delicate design cohesion between scroll bounce and scrolling, choosing; applications, locking onto buttons, and just randomly moving things around the screen.

The iPad is gesture-dependent for multitasking and swapping between applications. But those multi-fingered swipes have always appeared giant and ungainly, ape like, and a bit hokey at best when you have to raise an arm up to the screen. Done on a trackpad, they’re unexpectedly efficient and almost instantaneous. These movements now feel, I suppose you could say, closer. The trackpad is always nearer at hand than the screen; it sits on the same plane as the keyboard, further improving that sense of connection or perception between the user and the OS.

Which is strange considering how much a trackpad abstracts. A trackpad or mouse moves an immaterial thing on a distant surface. It’s unintuitive. In the ‘90s, when I was in high school, I trained a class with a friend called Internet 101. And we quickly understood the first thing we had to teach the students (often years older than us) was how to use a mouse. Seeing them strive was a surprise.

And still somehow, the overall effect of using a trackpad with an iPad is more convincing than direct manipulation, less draining, and simply more fun. This is in part because the cursor is in the same virtual space as the interface in a way our finger by no means can. It’s an innate part of the system. The cursor telegraphs what’s to come—what may not or may happen if you tap. It highlights what is or isn’t tappable, even. An old cursor turned the same I beam above any size text. The new cursor turns an I beam the size of the text field itself, so even if the field is blank, you “know” what will happen, and can begin to feel the basic logic of the interface before you dive in.

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

Progressive Improvement

I’ve been using the trackpad with my 11-inch iPad Pro 2018 for the past four days, and I can’t stop smiling. It’s a boneheaded response, I know—to be pleased by something that feels so clear and, many would say, regressive. But paths matter. And what’s so odd about all of this is the multiple layers of idleness you find on an iPad. You don’t require the keyboard to type, you can type on the display. You don’t need the trackpad to navigate, you can hold the Pencil and do the same. No one cares if you misplace that Pencil? The OS was created potato-first, and so your digits will work just perfect. A simple iPad is like Monty Python’s Black Knight; no legs, no arms, but the brain still works.

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

 

 

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