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Six things Apple needs to make a great iPad Pro trackpad

If the next iPad keyboard has a trackpad, Apple has a lot of work to do.

Six things Apple needs to make a great iPad Pro trackpad
[Photo: Taras Shypka/Unsplash]

Rumor has it that Apple will turn the iPad into more of a direct laptop replacement this year by selling a keyboard with a trackpad built in.

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Reporting for The Information, Wayne Ma writes that Apple could ship the new keyboard-trackpad combo alongside a new iPad Pro later this year. Apple has reportedly been experimenting with the idea for years, one of Ma’s sources said.

Releasing the hardware might be the easy part, though. While the iPad already supports mice and trackpads today, it’s through an accessibility feature that emulates finger presses. Having used this feature with a mouse, I can say that it’s nowhere close to the kind of support you’d expect from a laptop or desktop computer. I’d personally love for Apple to expand trackpad support to broader audience—with hardware to match—but it’ll have to do a lot of work on the software side first.

Here’s a short list of everything iOS trackpad support is missing:

A proper cursor

As if to drive home the idea that mouse support is for accessibility only, the current iOS cursor is a translucent circle with a dot in the middle. It doesn’t adapt to what it’s hovering over—for instance, by turning into an I-Beam pointer for text—and it makes precise selection tricky. This would have to change if Apple was building proper mouse and trackpad support in iOS 14.

Systemwide text selection

One theory about iOS trackpad support—proffered by both Dieter Bohn at The Verge and Jason Snell at Six Colors—holds that Apple may start simple by making the feature strictly about text. You can already bring up a cursor and select text on an iPad by dragging and tapping on the touchscreen with two fingers, so adding trackpad support for these interactions would be a logical next step.

But once you’ve started using a trackpad in a text editor, you quickly become aware of all the other places where cursor support is lacking. For instance, you still have to press and hold your finger down to highlight text in Apple’s Safari browser, and some text-heavy apps like Slack don’t even allow you to highlight text snippets. (You can copy an entire Slick message, but not part of it.) If text manipulation is going to be the focus of an iOS trackpad, it needs to work consistently across the entire operating system, just like it would on a Mac or Windows PC.

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Desktop-class browser support

With the launch of iPadOS last year, Apple made a big deal about how Safari has become a desktop-class browser, meaning that web pages will act just like they do on a Mac or PC.

But without cursor support, that claim doesn’t hold up. Many desktop websites still assume the presence of a mouse or trackpad, with menus that expand when you hover a cursor over them and text fields that don’t play nice with touch input. (This, more than anything, keeps me from using an iPad for work more often, because working in certain content management systems is a major hassle.) Being a desktop-class web browser requires a desktop-class input method to match.

Hover-based visual cues

With a mouse or trackpad on a laptop, you’ll often get some visual feedback when the cursor is on top of something selectable. Hyperlinks may change to a different color, and buttons may switch to a lighter or darker shade. It’s a subtle effect, but it helps you figure out what you’re about to click on without having to squint at the tip of the mouse pointer. Adding these kinds of visual cues to iOS would likely be a major undertaking, but mouse and trackpad support wouldn’t feel quite right without them.

Contextual menus

One of the great affordances of desktop computing is the ability to right-click or click with two fingers on a button to bring up a menu of potential actions. (One basic example: Right-clicking on a web link lets you quickly copy it or open it in a background tab.)

Many iOS apps offers similar contextual menus when you long-press on them, so one could imagine Apple mapping the same menus to a right click or two-finger click, but compared to laptops, it’s harder to tell when these options might be available. The bigger challenge would involve getting more app developers to support the feature in the first place.

Multitouch gestures and navigation controls

If we assume that Apple wants to build full-fledged trackpad support into iOS, it’ll also have to bring the iPad’s multitouch gestures to the trackpad. That means supporting pinch-to-zoom, four-finger swiping to switch between apps, and four-finger pinching to open the recent apps menu. (Also, some of us might throw a fit if there’s no way to reverse the direction of two-finger scrolling, so that the screen scrolls in the same direction as your fingers.)

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But why stop there? Apple might also want to build navigation controls for the cursor, so you can bring up the home screen, app tray, Notification Center, or Control Center by clicking different edges of the screen.

By now, you might be seeing the problem with all these requirements: They’re a tall order for a company that still seems to be grappling with fundamental ideas about how the iPad should work. As Apple has layered on more productivity-minded features such as split-screen apps, the app tray, and Slide Over views, the iPad has become more complicated to use. Some Apple watchers, such as Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, have even called for Apple to overhaul the entire system.

Adding full-blown mouse and trackpad support would be as big of a commitment as anything Apple has given the iPad in recent updates. While the company could settle on some halfway measure—such as only using such input for text editing—that would likely lead to the same frustrations that make people stick with traditional laptops in the first place. With so many other issues that need rethinking—and so many ways in which mouse and trackpad support can go wrong—Apple runs the risk of expanding the iPad’s input options in a way that doesn’t quite satisfy anyone.

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