Apple’s One Button MacBook Pro Mistake

by Chris Seibold Jan 31, 2006

When the Intel powered MacBook Pros were revealed, the first thing everyone wanted to know was how the performance compared to the most recent generation of PowerBooks. The answer so far, without any MacBook Pros being in the field, seems to be that the new machine is a great improvement using universal binaries and about what you would expect from emulation. The second item of interest was battery life. The interest in untethered computing time wasn’t surprising since the move to Intel was predicated on increased performance per watt. The answer to that question, again without any field experience, seems to be that battery life is roughly the same as the aluminum PowerBook. There is one more question that people should have been asking, but haven’t: Where’s the second trackpad button?

Looking at the MacBook Pro, there is precious little to differentiate it from the PowerBook it is replacing. On one level this makes sense, the Powerbook’s aluminum look still holds up even though it is positively ancient by Apple’s design standards. Assuming Apple kept the look because it was perfect, as Steve Jobs opined, that leaves one wondering if a secondary trackpad button was excluded from the machine because of aesthetics. The aesthetic reason doesn’t seem very likely, if the inclusion of an iSight doesn’t ruin the looks, it is hard to imagine how a second trackpad button would be detrimental to the appearance.

Perhaps some will argue that Apple simply didn’t have time to get the second trackpad button tacked on to the machine. There are, after all, some tricky ergonomics worth considering: Should the button be split into equal halves? Should it be one button but function like a rocker switch where one half of the trackpad button is dedicated to left click and the other is a right click? Should Apple add more than one button? Simple questions for generic PC manufacturers (add more clickers!), but hard questions for Apple designers who want everything to be perfect. Still, they did manage to make time to design the slick MagSafe connector. Only the most credulous would believe that the second button was eschewed purely because of time factors.

At this point, we should probably do away with the argument that single button trackpads are inherently easier to use than their multi-button counterparts. That argument was solid back in 1984 when the Mac appeared sporting the first widely used mouse (the machine also lacked cursor keys to encourage mouse usage) but it really doesn’t work today. As users become acquainted with technology, and a great many more people are acquainted with multi-button pointing devices than single button rigs, the reasons to feature only a single button become far less compelling.

Let us take game consoles as an example. The Atari 2600 featured a joystick and a single button. It was obvious for even the most technologically illiterate how to use the input device (although up wasn’t always clear). When the Nintendo Entertainment System rolled out it added a second button and replaced the joystick with a directional pad. Had people become that much smarter over the intervening years? No, but they had become more technically savvy, and the duties that the control pad were required to perform had grown much more complex. This isn’t to say that console makers can’t get button happy, the current crop of controllers look as though they were designed by someone who sincerely believed that the more a controller could be like Robotron 2084 with a keyboard the better, only to point out that clinging to a one button trackpad is clinging needlessly to the past.

This leads us straight to the heart of the problem: Apple has apparently lost any conviction about the ideal configuration of mice or trackpads. Note that all the desktop Macs, save the mini, ship with the multi-button Mighty Mouse. Obviously, Apple thinks the addition of extra buttons (they may be hidden but they are still buttons) is a bonus for desktop users. For some reason they don’t think that MacBook Pro users would appreciate the extra functionality.

It is at this point that someone will surely object that since the trackpad button is built-in and the mouse is external Apple is going the safe route by not adding an extra trackpad button. The logic seems sensible but temper that with all the other things Apple asks users to do with their trackpad. You’ve got trackpad finger clicking, double finger scrolling, circular finger motion panning etc. Apple’s list of things you can do with the trackpad sounds less like a simplistic method to control your computer and more like a geeky version of the Kama Sutra. It is apparent that Apple isn’t keeping the trackpad simple for the sake of simplicity.

So why the refusal to add a much needed second button to the MacBook Pro? If it wasn’t the time factor, the urge to keep things very simple, or aesthetics, all unlikely culprits, what possible reason could there be? The most probable answer is that it was a conscious, yet unfortunate, decision. For years, Apple has offered hardware consistency. If you used a desktop Mac, the laptop version worked in precisely the same manner. It was one of the better things about Apple products. With the addition of the Mighty Mouse as a standard accessory, perhaps those days are gone. Trying to integrate all of the Might Mouse’s functionality into a single trackpad button combo would result likely result in something resembling a clove studded nicotine patch. Excuses made and objections noted Apple should expand the functionality of their trackpads by adding a second button, if it is good enough for the desktop Macs it is certainly good enough for a two thousand dollar laptop.


  • Regarding viperteq’s idea, I think it’s potentially very cool but problematic from an ergonomic point of view, and sounds eminently losable…

    Benji had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 927
  • I don’t know why everyone here’s suddenly become so fond of a single-button trackpad. Probably they’ve never tried to save a target in Firefox/Safari or bring up the context menu in PathFinder or GIMP.

    But I’m 100% with you on this one. If only my Powerbook had two buttons, I could stop carrying around that mouse with me.

    nigham had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 10
  • Luke’s 13 yr old sister says: ^ Um… you don’t need a mouse to right click. You can use the ctrl button smile


    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 299
  • Imagine that, a thirteen year old putting it as straight forward as it gets. Two thumbs up for Luke’s little sister.

    I should have said it earlier, I guess I’m a D-d-d-dUMBASS too. Habbits are hard to break, and seeing this is exactly what I do mke me wish I said it first.

    Macster2 had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 40
  • Yes I’m bored, after my post I scrolled down to view it and a neat little screen saver appeared between the article and the posts, I click, I follow to download site, I get….We’re sorry this is not available for mac. Hmmm “Apple Matters” website?
    The word Apple in the website, nearly all discussions and articles “Apple”. Please tell me why this site is promoting Windows software, because this is not right, not to mention it tweaks me to no end. Whats up AppleMatters? Any input here Mr. Siebold? God I hate this, does anyone else agree?

    Macster2 had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 40
  • I’m not the webmaster, advertising contact, PR or department or editor. I’m just a writer. I will wager a guess, Macster, that a bunch of people using PCs read Applematters and advertisers want to reach those folks.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 354
  • Has anyone tried using voice commands to activate right click? I don’t know if stock OS X can do it - but it was just an idea that popped into the vacuum.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • ^ When I first got my Mac I thought the voice commands thing was so cool.  But then trying to unpause iTunes with my voice didn’t seem to work. It took me a while to figure it out, so first person who can tell me why, wins a prize.

    In regards to advertising, Chris is probably right about Windows users reading here. But at the end of the day, it isn’t usually down to the site owner to decide on advertisements. Most sites nowadays go through an advertising service, similar to Google’s adwords. But I guess if it’s there, there has got to be enough demand. Either that or someone’s doing something wrong.

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 299
  • I dislike multiple clickbuttons (ie left and right click) on a trackpad— I always click the wrong one. I hope Apple sticks to the one click.

    Martijn ten Napel had this to say on Feb 01, 2006 Posts: 6
  • For someone who’s been helping people use computers for years, the right-click is a mistake. It’s great for those of us with experience, but I think it belongs on a separate mouse and not on laptop. I’ve very experienced, and right-click buttons still bother me on laptops. Apple made the right choice.

    coolfactor had this to say on Feb 01, 2006 Posts: 3
  • Actually, that’s a good point. There’s many of us here, including Chris himself, who, even after 10-15+ years of using computers, still find a second trackpad button awkward. So maybe this is the reason Apple haven’t done it.

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Feb 01, 2006 Posts: 299
  • I have used many different laptop computers since the late 1980’s…  I have yet to find one that has a truly comfortable and efficiently usable built-in pointing device.  I have tired everything from little balls to eraser heads to rolling rods to various sizes and textures of touchpads with a variety of extra features. Of all of these, I like the touchpad on my 17” PowerBook the best.  The touchpad is bigger and smoother than the one on my old 15” Ti PowerBook, and I love the 2-finger scrolling.  I also prefer the one button to any multi-button design (where I regularly hit the wrong button).  This may seem strange since I will only use a 4+button trackball or a 3+button mouse at a desktop.

    The ctrl-click trick does suffice most times for most Mac programs, but not always…  Some Mac software (especially dual-platform professional applications like my LightWave 3D)  use ctrl-click to do something else so this trick does not work.  The same is true for Windows applications running under Virtual PC.  For any of this kind of serious work, I have to drag out my trackball or multi-button mouse.  It would be great if I could do all this work without moving my hands from the laptop surface.

    All of this said, I believe there is an elegant solution that everyone will like…  Keep the Apple touchpad just as it is, just make the button touch-sensitive as well as mechanical.  This should not be a big technical challenge given that iPods have touch-sensitive mechanical buttons.  The button would still have to be mechanically pressed to function, but the button number would be determined not by where it is pressed but by how many fingers (or thumbs) were sensed doing the pressing.  Software configuration could allow 1-2-3 or even more buttons to be supported this way (and assignment to various functions).  The default would be just one button as before and those who love it that way would never know the difference.  The rest of us would enjoy a much richer and more powerful device that would be more intuitive and more comfortable than anything else out there.  No fumbling and hitting the wrong button as you flow along the large touchpad, just click with the appropriate number of fingers.


    JeffRutan had this to say on Feb 01, 2006 Posts: 1
  • I like your thinking, Jeff. I think something in that direction could work. That is a very elegant, Apple solution.

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Feb 02, 2006 Posts: 299
  • I have never owned a Mac (yet). However, I like the two-fingered scrolling function on the touchpad, and it gave me an idea: I assume that you can tap the touchpad to perform a click. How about if you do a two-fingered tap, you would perform a right-click? Just a thought…

    Tor Arvid Lund had this to say on Feb 02, 2006 Posts: 1
  • how about if you’re touching (or even holding down) the touchpad’s button, then tapping the touchpad becomes a right click?

    Chris Howard had this to say on Feb 02, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • Page 2 of 3 pages  <  1 2 3 >
You need log in, or register, in order to comment