The mouse is dead. The touch interface is here to stay.

I was sitting in a restaurant today and noticed a middle-aged man and an elderly woman sit down behind us with a brand-new Toshiba laptop. He was helping her unbox and start it up for the first time and it was clear that she was not an experienced computer user. On first boot, Windows 7 immediately began asking basic account questions, just as Mac OS X and Linux do, but she was stymied by the input method. It took several minutes for her to figure out how to make the Toshiba’s trackpad work so she could move the cursor to the correct data fields to complete the forms.

Once the machine completed its setup, it began popping up a series of dialog boxes, the text of which she had trouble reading on the Toshiba’s high-resolution screen. And when she could read it, she needed her friend’s help deciphering it.

The entire exercise fascinated me. Any other day, I would have been making snide Windows remarks to myself, but today – after having spent some time yesterday with an iPad – I was struck by just how unintuitive and bad most computer interfaces really are.

The mouse is, for most people and most use cases, a horrible input device. It forces our hands into unnatural shapes and produces odd repetitive stress injuries. Even just 20 minutes with the iPad makes me realize that the mouse has been, since Douglas Englebart invented it in 1963, a stopgap. It has been a placeholder; keeping us busy while the industry worked towards a more human interface.

A mouse (or an equivalent device) must translate your hand’s movement to the screen, while the touch interface employed by the iPad and iPhone remove the translation layer and let you interact directly with objects on screen. That it took us so long to get here is kind of pathetic, really.

Based on the people I saw using iPads last night, the new Toshiba owner today would have had very little trouble with an iPad, and it probably would have been a better fit for both her use case and her finances.

But the iPad is just a taste of things to come. Bill Gates recently said of the iPad, “It definitely needs a stylus accessory though
because I love to draw and finger painting isn’t cutting it…” I completely disagree. Certainly there are instances where a stylus would be useful for the added precision it might bring, but Gate’s company has spent a decade trying to build a tablet operating system and all they have to show for it is some touch features tacked on to Windows. Clearly, they think the future still favors the mouse.

In my old job as a photojournalist I used some heavy graphics and design applications (Photoshop, Quark XPress, InDesign, etc.) – all of which would have been made easier, quicker, and more fun with a full-sized touch interface. Very little of the tasks faced by most knowledge workers are made better by using the mouse.

The iPad, whatever you may think of it as a consumer computing device, is showing us the future.