Lifting the Mouse

It’s been eleven days since I switched from a 12” MacBook to a 9.7” iPad Pro, full time. I work in a coffee shop every afternoon, and I haven’t taken the MacBook with me since I got the iPad. I’ve not used the MacBook in the mornings or evenings, either. My total time on a laptop over the last week and a half has been maybe ten minutes — and that was to refer to some app-specific automation scripts that I was porting over to the new device and its own apps.

I’ve read articles about people who went “iPad only” for one day per week, and wrote about it effusively. That’s not going iPad only; it’s dabbling. I decided that if this was going to work, I had to commit — so here I am. It’s been eleven days, solidly. I haven’t looked back.

What I have done, though, and what I’m continuing to do right now, is try to work out why this thing appeals to me so damned much. Indulge me for a bit while I think out loud.

The question is: why switch to a tablet at all? I wrote a bit about my dissatisfaction with computers, but that’s only the beginning of an answer. It doesn’t automatically follow that being fed up with one tool means you should choose an entirely different one. I’m going to need a much more compelling argument than that.

First, let’s get the measurable and obvious comparisons out of the way: cost, and portability. An iPad is both more affordable and more portable than most laptops. For example, if you’re a Mac user, the base-spec 12” MacBook is £1,249, and the 13” MacBook Air is £949. The 9.7” iPad Pro (wi-fi) is £549, or £639 at a more-sensible 128GB capacity. That’s the one I bought. And if you decide on an iPad Air 2 instead, it’s much cheaper still: £469 for the 128GB wi-fi model.

Weight-wise, the 12” MacBook is 920g, and the 13” MacBook Air is 1,350g. The 9.7” iPad Pro and iPad Air 2 are each 437g, or a total of 668g if you also carry a Magic Keyboard, as I do. So: cheaper and lighter. But metrics-comparison is a pretty absurd way to choose between computers, so skip all that nonsense. Tablets and laptops are entirely different beasts. The attraction of working (and playing) solely from a tablet is much more subjective than lower price or reduced weight, though those are certainly bonuses.

There’s a tactile element, for one thing. Being able to pick the device up and interact with it directly, tapping controls or drawing on the screen. Holding it in your hands when you’re reading, and cradling it in one arm or spinning it around on a table when sketching, as well as using it with a keyboard like any other laptop. It feels personal, and it also feels like the future. There’s a continuing sense of satisfaction; at least, there is for me.

I think it’s also about the perceived adaptability of the device. I’m not having to adapt to it quite so much; instead, it adapts to me, rotating into a new orientation, showing or hiding the on-screen keyboard, and — in the case of the iPad Pro — actually adjusting its screen colour and speaker balance based on where and how I’m using it. Our gadgets should do that, shouldn’t they? They should respond to a direct touch, rather than this bizarre thing where we use a glass pad several inches away from the screen, mounted at ninety degrees, that vaguely maps to some portion of the display depending on where a little pointer happens to be. It’s so familiar that we forget how crazy it is. How rooted in the hardware limitations of the past. We’ve accepted it and internalised it, and now it’s not just normal but proper. Which is crap. It’s still normal, but it’s not proper at all. It’s old, and no matter how effective, it’s still cognitively wacky.

I remember learning to use a mouse for the first time. Our primary school had old microcomputers, and I didn’t touch a computer mouse until I was about ten years old. I remember how freaky it was, and the definite adaption period as I mapped the horizontal surface of the desk to the vertical surface of the monitor. Forward for up, and backward for down. I remember how impossible it was to neatly write my name, even though it seemed like that’d be a good use for this thing.

Nearly three decades later, I’m a power user — of antiquated technology. I can type faster than you. I know more keyboard shortcuts and keyboard-navigation methods (and utilities) than you do. I’ve automated so much stuff. A new computer is barely usable until I’ve tricked it out with my macros, and launchers, and scripts, and customisations. Until I’ve installed them, I feel like that little boy again, trying to stop myself instinctively picking the mouse up off the desk when I wanted to move the pointer upwards on the screen.

And that, dear reader, is fucked up.

This iPad, though — and your tablet too, sure; Surface, Galaxy-whatever, Fire… I don’t really keep up to date on the non-Apple options, but I don’t mean to be exclusionary — is a different deal. It’s flexible, and not just in the sense that I can push it away from me and put the keyboard wherever I want, easing the strain on my broken, long-sighted eyes a little. It adapts to me. It says “tap this”, and “slide this”, and “flick this thing over here”. It lets me hold it or prop it up any way I want, and it flips its own stuff around to suit me, without complaint.

It agrees with me that up is up.

For all that I’ve talked about the hardware, it’s actually more or less incidental. As long as it works and lets you do all the flip-it-around and tap-this-thing stuff, I don’t care. I know there’s a gyroscope and an accelerometer, and light sensors and… a bucket of electronic toys. Don’t care. I’ve got a gyroscope and an accelerometer and some light sensors too, all in my skull. The gadget just has whatever it needs to speak the same essential sensory and motor language as I do. It’s the minimum human-suitable thing. It gets a pass on that basis; nothing more.

The important part is what you might call the operating system and the apps, and what’s really just the how of it. The gadget’s deliberately-adopted mannerisms and argot; the chosen lingua franca of our interactions. Check me out with my fancy words.

A lot of it is similar enough to the desktop to be familiar. Cloud storage and sync services like Dropbox or iCloud Drive are my Finder and desktop, and I can pretty much get files into and out of all the apps I care to use. The names and icons of the apps are the same, and they’re nigh-identical to their desktop cousins with regard to the genre of tasks they let me perform. But they’re different, and the difference is from both necessity and a new set of conventions. There’s a different ethos on human devices like the iPad, and it’s something like focused limitation.

Everything feels like it’s been designed to provide an 80% solution: most of the stuff that most people want to do, in a way that acknowledges how terrible computers are at being friendly, usable, life-accommodating tools.

(And also a fair bit of the stuff that only dorks and weirdos want to do. I mean, I use the iPad to blog with a nerdy static site-builder and log into servers, and make newsletters in a format that needs converted into HTML later. That’s not remotely normal. And it all works just fine, without a laptop.)

The attraction for me comes from two things, really: uniformity, and elementality. The uniformity is the way that the majority of apps and other interfaces all work the same way. Some toolbars and buttons, maybe a sidebar on the left, popovers and lists. Lots of little visual cues and affordances, but really just a handful of display styles. The expectation of direct manipulation — because it’s required; there’s no pointer beyond your fingers or stylus. There’s no accreted indirection. That’s the part that makes it straightforward to discover: because whatever is there pretty much has to be presented in a certain way. But it’s secondary.

The critical aspect is the elementality — the choice of what’s there in the first place. The overall experience is that you’re seeing the simplest possible presentation, no matter how complex the underlying functionality. 80% of Scrivener, in a white screen with a handful of tappable buttons hanging around. 80% of a video-editing app. 80% of a serious word processor, or a spreadsheet app, or a presentation tool, or a photo editor. And really, it’s often a fair bit more than eighty. I have this idea that iOS is someone’s (probably Steve Jobs’) long, silent scream that IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY ANYMORE.

Tear it all down. Throw away the rule book, and come at the whole thing from the other end. iPad software, to me, looks like software for people who are so tired of software’s crap. So fed up with design-by-geek, and function keys, and installers, and anti-virus, and… I don’t know; printer drivers? Are they still a thing? Probably.

I think that what really gets me about the iPad, besides the damned physical humanity of it, is that it legitimises the eminently sane position that computers have long since become punitive, entrapping garbage. Yes, even my cute MacBook. They’re a world of pain. And as it turns out, a lot of it is completely unnecessary.

The iPad — and iOS, indivisibly — sits there, enduring nonsensical headlines like Can an iPad be used for productivity?, and it says, oh god, you people are the problem here. Can you be productive? You can be productive on notepaper and a pencil in a pinch. What are you smoking, and what exactly is the name for what’s wrong with you?

Yes, it’s liberating, in the untethered-from-the-desktop sense. Yes, it’s portable, and flexible, and adaptable. But remember: that’s just a pass. It gets the Human Approved rubber-stamp. That’s just your basic right to expect, whether you choose to financially exercise it or not.

What made me buy into the iPad as a full-time actual computer is that it doesn’t just agree with a feeling I think I’ve always had; it does something about it. It’s a device that was designed this millennium, and it looks and acts and feels like it. It gives me hope — and asks for surprisingly little in return.

I have a weekly alarm set now, for Tuesday mornings, to wake the MacBook and check that it’s been duly updating itself, and backing itself up both locally and remotely. It would email me if there was a problem in that regard, but I like to check. It’s an interim measure, until I work out what I’m going to do with the thing. The alarm fired this morning, and I went and checked everything; it only took a minute or so. And it was already weird.

No way to pull the screen part off the keyboard part, and carry it around on its own. No way to turn it into a book or a magazine, with the screen rotating around according to gravity. No way to just point at things, instead of having to use this wacky bit of glass below the keys, and a tiny arrow. Everything smaller, and crammed onto the display. Fifty things to click at all times, and many of them not even belonging to the app I’m dealing with. And a file system that hovers visually behind everything else, for… some reason. The whole thing is so bizarre, and I can’t unsee it.

It was necessary at its time. It was great, even. Innovative and expedient. It worked really well, and as long as you’re willing to keep living with it — and keep fiddling and accommodating and mousing — it still does.

But there’s also another way. And don’t pretend that you can’t see the writing on the wall. The Mac, and the traditional desktop computing paradigm, is dying. I think Apple wants it to die, rightly so. And most normal people don’t even care. In a generation, they’ll barely remember. That’s a sobering thought.

I have a strong feeling about which way the wind is blowing, figuratively speaking, and I’m not going to wait until my hand is forced; I’m jumping now. Because I have the luxury of being able to, and because I think this is what I’ve wanted since before I was a writer, and before I was a software engineer previously, and before I knew how to use a pointing device despite already having ten of them. Since before anyone ever told me I should.

Since I was ten years old, and an as-yet unindoctrinated kid, reflexively lifting the mouse.