Gorilla Arms and iOS on Laptops

For a long time it was widely accepted in HCI circles that touchscreens and desktop environments don’t blend well. While the concept might be tempting on a quick glance, the ergonomics of vertically mounted touchscreens at arm’s length quickly lead to muscle fatigue over prolonged use. Touchscreens work reasonably well for brief interactions, such as ATMs or vending machines, but you probably wouldn’t want to use them as your primary way of pointing at things on your screen for eight hours a day. There’s even a popular term for this phenomenon, the Gorilla Arm effect.

A number of companies have tried to defy this widely held belief and bring touchscreens and desktop environments together over the past few years, most notably Microsoft, from its early foray with Windows XP Tablet edition more than ten years ago to their recent ambitions with Windows 8, but so far these attempts were met with poor critical reception and modest success in the marketplace.

Nevertheless, touchscreens can be a useful complement to other pointing devices. Maybe you’ve already found yourself haplessly tapping your laptop screen on occasion, conditioned by years of smartphone and tablet use. Furthermore, when you’re already typing on your laptop’s keyboard, your hands are already close to the screen anyway – I haven’t found any studies about this, but I would imagine that moving your hands to the screen instead of the mouse might be more comfortable occasionally.

The allure of touchscreens for auxiliary input on laptops is strong. Being an Apple user myself, I’ve occasionally been envious of innovative new devices such as Microsoft’s Surface or the Google Chromebook Pixel. I like to think I can’t be the only one feeling this way, and just back in February John Moltz speculated about the possibility of a touchscreen Macbook. Unfortunately traditional desktop user interfaces such as Windows or Mac OS X have historically proven to be ill-suited for touchscreen interaction. The demands of legacy application support (as evident in Windows 8’s hybrid desktop environment) highlight the difficulty of adapting traditional desktop user interfaces for touchscreen input. However, going in the opposite direction and adapting tablet user interfaces for traditional laptop form factors might just work. Lukas Mathis said as much back in November 2012, when he wrote:

Most of the things required for a great touch user interface are also good ideas on the desktop. Large touch targets, fast, responsive user interfaces, a simple, intuitive information architecture, uncluttered screens that don’t offer too many different features, easily understood screenflows, lightweight applications, simplified window management — all of these things work on the desktop just as well as on a tablet.

When I first encountered his reasoning I was very skeptical. While I wouldn’t argue against the specific arguments he presents, I was largely convinced that touch user interfaces would be rather inefficient for mouse interaction, with lower information density necessitated by larger touch targets and poor multitasking support being my most immediate and obvious concerns. Since then I’ve largely come around on this issue, though: While touch user interfaces might not be quite as efficient as desktop interfaces for expert users, the familiarity of a unified user experience across a broad range of devices would probably outweigh this disadvantage for most users. Bringing iOS to laptops would probably require a few adaptations, but it’s certainly more feasible than adapting Mac OS X for touch interaction. So over the past few months I’ve come to believe that in the long run Apple will probably replace Mac OS X with iOS on its entire device lineup (maybe save for developer machines, but I expect those to fade away eventually as well).

And then, just yesterday, esteemed Apple commentator John Gruber posted this quite interesting remark:

I expect an iOS notebook eventually; I expect never to see a touchscreen MacBook.

So I guess the idea isn’t completely crazy. It’s also interesting to ponder what might have changed John Gruber’s mind on this topic, as just six months ago he wrote:

A touch-optimized UI makes no more sense for a non-touch desktop than a desktop UI makes for a tablet. Apple has it right: a touch UI for touch devices, a pointer UI for pointer (trackpad, mouse) devices.

Now I can’t help but wonder how well iOS would work with mouse input. I don’t expect Apple to add mouse support to iOS unless they have very good reason to do so (such as, you know, an iOS laptop, and I don’t really see that happening anytime soon). But iOS already supports bluetooth keyboards out of the box and you can hack mouse support into jailbroken iOS devices. An iPad with keyboard and mouse should already give you a pretty good idea about how an iOS laptop might work for you. Maybe it’s time to jailbreak my old first generation iPad…