The $69 Apple Magic Trackpad is nothing new. The Wacom Bamboo Touch has offered the same multi-touch functionality for almost a year. Its true relevance is in what it heralds: The end of Mac OS X as we know it.
Madness, some will scream. But it's just the next logical step of the evolution. But before explaining why this is the beginning of the end of Apple's desktop operating system as we know it, here's the review:
The Apple Magic Trackpad is nice. It's not magical, and it won't convince laptop users looking for a desktop trackpad. But it will work as a mouse replacement for desktop users who are looking for a more comfortable alternative with multitouch support.
Installation is easy. After running the software—which you will have to download from Apple's support servers—and turning it on, the aluminum slab comes alive, a green light blinking through its metal surface as it connects to your computer via Bluetooth. All in a few seconds.
It's also easy to use and learn. In fact, if you have used a MacBook Pro or any laptop with a trackpad before this, there are not many secrets to discover. It's just a larger trackpad—5.11 x 4.33 inches vs the 4 x 3 inches of the latest MacBook Pro 15—that supports multitouch, with two, three and four finger gestures. That means that you can, for example, move two fingers to pan around a large picture or web page. Or drag four fingers down to bring up Exposé, my favorite gesture.
Also like the MacBook, it "clicks" when you click—an effect achieved thanks to its little bottom feet—and the gesture behaviors can be customized using the trackpad preference panel:
The Magic Trackpad is comfortable, but not if you are looking for the laptop experience. Comfort is perhaps its most important advantage in relation to the mouse. It felt better and more natural after a day of intense use. This is caused by two factors: One, you can put it in any position you want next to the keyboard; two, the surface is at a small angle in relation to the table.
However, that's its Achilles' Heel for people who wanted to place it below the keyboard, like in a notebook computer. There's a big advantage on this position: In a laptop, the trackpad is extremely easy and fast to access, requiring to sightly move the thumb or the hand. But this is not possible with the Magic Trackpad: If you try to put it below the keyboard, its height makes typing impossibly uncomfortable. Perhaps this may be possible with taller keyboards, but not with the low profile Apple keyboard.
But if you use on the side of the keyboard, the Apple Magic Trackpad feels natural and precise. It has quickly replaced my mouse with almost zero learning curve. For $69, however, its price may be too high to replace your current mouse. If you were looking to buy an expensive mouse—and you are not a gamer—it is certainly a possibility. Or perhaps you want to get the $49 Wacom Bamboo Touch instead, which is a little bit smaller (4.92 x 3.35 inches) and connects via USB, but supports the same multitouch gestures and includes some programmable side buttons (and for $30 more, Wacom has a pressure pen and multitouch Bamboo).
If you don't mind the Apple's styling price premium over Wacom's plastic black slate, and don't care about where your trackpad is located, you will be happy with this one. But if you are looking for the laptop experience on your desktop computer, pass.
Precise and comfortable for use on the side
Good aesthetic design
Not useful for fast laptop-style use
So if Apple's Magic Trackpad is not really that good, why would does it mean the beginning of the end of Mac OS X as we know it? Because this is Steve and Co. way of telling us that the future is multitouch, and the mouse is death.
After the success of the iPhone, the iPod touch, and the iPad, Apple has realized that the consumer market is ready for a new user interface paradigm, centered around multitouch and the idea of fully database-driven modal operating system. The death of the desktop metaphor—that overcomplicated and stinking mass of hurt made out of a zillion folders and files—as we know it. It was good when the world ran on floppies and small hard drives, but it's time to move on.
Apple wants to move everything to multitouch, iMacs, MacBooks, and Mac Pros. The problem is that they can't do it like they did with the iPad. Perhaps the MacBook will see a hybrid touchscreen/keyboard design, but on the desktop this would be impossible.
The problem is the hardware. It's too tiring to move your hands across a 24-inch or 27-inch display. The idea of a good swiveling stand that will allow the user to easily move the display down to a very low angle, so she can use it similarly to a Microsoft Surface, sounds good in a sci-fi kind of way. But at the end of a work day, your neck and arms will hurt. The angle will also limit readability and, in any case, you will obscure part of the screen with your arms.
One solution to this problem was proposed by the inventors of the 10/GUI operating system concept: A new desktop operating system that, while being fully multitouch based, doesn't require you to touch the screen. In 10/GUI, a large, flat, multitouch trackpad replaces the cursor/mouse. This video explains the cons and the pros of each system:
It certainly won't be like this, but I can see Apple implementing a similar input solution. It makes sense, and lines up with their current iOS strategy. There will be keyboards in the near future, and Apple's Magic Trackpad will merge with it, perhaps like this:
But not only the keyboard and the trackpad will merge. Mac OS X and iOS—which is a customized subset of Apple's desktop operating system—will merge.
That doesn't mean that your iMac will run like today's iPad, but its interface will change completely. It will be a lot simpler, and multitouch based. Gone will be the Finder, gone will be the windows. The traditional computer desktop will be replaced into something streamlined, but not less powerful. Perhaps for some pro users, there will be a mosaic view to watch several apps at the same time, but eventually Apple will move everyone to a modal-based interface.
On the desktop, apps won't lose its power: A professional user will be able to run Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, and Final Cut Pro. Like today, they will run at full screen, and users will switch using Exposé—which has been a success for power users and many consumers alike (and, I have no doubt, will come to the iPad version of iOS 4). Side by side, the desktop computers will also run the lightweight apps available for the iPhone and iPad (of course, no Photoshop on the iPad, but perhaps Photoshop Lite in iPad 3).
This won't happen in a day. It's a multistep process and the magic trackpad is the first step. Here's my prediction from now on:
• In a few months they will announce the Magic Trackpad as standard in the next iMac generation (optionally, people would be able to get the mouse).
• With multitouch everywhere, Apple will make possible to run iOS applications in Mac OS X 10.7. Developers will recompile for the x86, either creating fat binary apps that can be deployed in the iPhone, iPad and iMacs, or just have three versions like some do now for iPad and iPhone. This is easy for developers to do, since iOS is really a subset of Mac OS X and apps are completely isolated from hardware. The apps that depend on special features—like accelerator—will be adapted. And those Apple users with Magic Trackpads will run to buy them.
• In a couple of years, after iPad 3 and iPhone 6 start to take over MacBook sales in the consumer space, Apple will make the jump, making Mac OS X 10.8 fully multitouch driven, and selling this
with every computer.
I can't wait for this future, which is already happening with the iPad at the low end. The desktop metaphor has had its run.
It's time for change, and that's why I welcome the Apple Magic Trackpad despite its failures.