Not missing a mouse and why it makes me angry

So I got burgled recently, which sucked. I was actually just settling down to watch some terrible sci-fi featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger with Daniel Kershaw, when I was informed that my house had been broken into. Now cutting a long story short this was a horrible experience, both scary and incredibly inconvenient. Thankfully most of the data that was on the stolen computers was backed up on the cloud, and alike, but its still quite awful to have you space invaded, not to mention the material loss. Thankfully insurance covered replacement items, although in the overall it ended up costing me about £500 to cover excesses, etc. The key thing that needed replacing for me was a laptop computer.

For the first time in my life I opted to get an Apple Macbook. I’ve actually been quite actively talking down Macs for a long time, let alone contemplating owning one. I don’t like the company’s approach (to be honest it’s hard to like the approach of any of the big tech/computing companies) to restricting upgrades and designed-obsolescence. Plus the price of the hardware has always been a big turn off. Also I’ve always been a Windows user, I know the Microsoft OS very well, feel comfortable with it and the software that runs on it. What made me decide to get one now isn’t that interesting.. but is largely because the vast majority of my peers at HighWire (and the academic staff too actually) use Macs. It’s not (just) because I just wanted to be part of the club either but there are also some rather more noble/practical reasons for why this is useful: mainly that its easy to compare notes on different softwares that may be required in the line of duty (think reference managers etc). Other factors are relevant too: that fact that Macbooks generally have a decent battery life (as compared most other laptops) is a consideration when working in the way – so far as I can tell anyway – most HighWire PhD students do (unpredictably, all over the place, flexibly – as I write this I’m sat in Fuel Cafe). Finally the high-resolution (retina) screen really does improve my workflow: text documents are so much easier to read, and I have a wealth of screen real-estate to play with (happily handles two apps side-by-side).

Working on a laptop in Fuel

Working on a laptop in Fuel

The thing that spurred me to blog about this, however, is to mention to track pad on Apple Macbooks. It is, to be quite frank, vastly better than any other track pad I’ve ever used before. In the past I’ve always had to use a mouse for anything but the simplest of tasks because otherwise my workflow would be disrupted so much by the terribly bad trackpads that pervade on non-Apple laptops. So, still only a few weeks into owning the Macbook, I’m quite shocked to think that not only do I not require a mouse any more – I actually prefer working without one! I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so in love with a bit of technology as I am this computer, and the biggest single reason for this is the trackpad. I’m not going to go into laborious detail as to why I think this is the case, but as far as I can tell, the salient points are:

  1. Quality hardware
  2. Not too big, not too small
  3. Sensitive and accurate
  4. Excellent integration with the OS (via gestures)
  5. (whatever it is they’ve done to make it) Intuitive to use

I’m sure there are many reasons why it’s such a good piece of kit, and so central to the Macbook experience… but that’s not the point. My point here is: why is the Macbook trackpad (apparently) unique?

My hypothesis is that there are plenty of patents around and about that protect the sort of hardware (and probably software) features that make the Apple trackpad so good, thus ensuring that others are unable to use similarly well designed systems. I wonder whether this is because others can’t afford the licence fees that Apple would want to charge? Or maybe, because trackpads aren’t ‘essential’ (as per standards-essential patents) so maybe Apple can hold everyone else to ransom, refusing them the option of using the patent? Basically the root of my enquiry is to ask the question why is it that nobody else can get trackpads right? I’m all for protecting intellectual property, but I’m also all for the idea of encouraging innovation – something that I think the patent system was originally intended to do. For whatever reason it isn’t working in this instance as there seems precious little that even comes close to comparing to the efficiency of working with an Apple trackpad. I’m no expert and I may be wrong, so I’ll phrase it as a question: is the patent system just protecting Apple’s (apparently unique) ability to sell hardware at impressive profit margins? (and meanwhile preventing anyone else from making a decent trackpad!)

So… I’m really happy to have this Macbook: in a round about way the burglars did me favour, as I probably would never have willingly ‘converted’ to Apple without having the opportunity to get a brand new machine. The OS is really better than I knew, and it only took a little while to get used to it (after nearly two decades of working with Windows). So far I haven’t had any issues with software not being available for MacOS (at least not where there hasn’t been an appropriate alternative). The trackpad is amazing, and has transformed my mobile working. However, the lack of competitors for the trackpad (in particular) makes me somewhat depressed. I’m yet to see a compelling argument for why the kind of patents granted to the likes of Apple, Google, Samsung etc, on very generic hardware concepts are beneficial in terms of innovation. It’s even worse for software. I wish every trackpad in the world could be as good as this one, and I think if everybody using trackpads used one of these.. you’d be able to measure the effect via global productivity within weeks!!! (:-P maybe a slight exaggeration)

Patent Wars, from Business Week (

To slightly balance my disdain for Apple’s use of the patent system, I have another brief story. I was at a talk by Clive Grinyer, a designer working for Cisco. The presentation was part of the HighWire ‘Digital Futures’ series, so most of the people in the room were PhD candidates. Clive noted that every single laptop in the room was an Apple-designed machine. Initially I thought he would say something negative about this fact, however on the contrary he wanted to say that he thought this was encouraging.

Macs - Finishing off some work on our 'Deep Dive' project - showing off 4 Apple Laptops.

Macs – Finishing off some work on our ‘Deep Dive’ project – showing off 4 Apple Laptops.

The reason Clive saw it as encouraging, is that it indicated that all of us in the room were appreciative of an integrated approach to design (whether we knew it or not). Clive was arguing the importance of multi/cross/or maybe ‘post’ disciplinary working. So, not just coders talking to designers, but coders that appreciate design, and can have a realistic conversation with a manufacturing manager, taking into account what the manufacturing manager is telling them about supply chains while also being able to converse with the marketing department about branding….. and so on. Apple work in an integrated way, and the result is products designed holistically and integrated into the whole corporate ecosystem, and, into the consumer ecosystem…. and that… I guess… is why despite being ubiquitous Apple products remain so attractive, sell so well and as a result Apple have a (correct at time of writing) 137 billion USD cash pile. Well done Apple! Clive took pleasure in seeing that ‘we’ (HighWire PhD candidates) had ‘voted with our cash’ and collectively all appreciated the value in this integrated approach, and hence the room only had Apple computers in it. Well done us. But I do hope, maybe sooner rather than later, that a room full of PhD candidates in the future might have slightly more diverse tastes in their hardware, resulting from a better use of our intellectual property legislation.