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.


  • First, I find it rather ridiculous to dedicate a whole article on a very old Mac question; one, two or a multi button mouse.

    Second, without one in your hands, how do you know it doesn’t have a 2nd mouse button? The Mighty Mouse sports 4 buttons, all rather very well hidden. I would think that the MacBook Pro could have a two button pad depending upon which side of the button your finger was on, and make it all very customizable, just like the Mighty Mouse in System Preferences.

    This article is too weak of a topic AND far too premature. Much like the Oscars where there is more hype about who may win rather than reviewing the histories of the winners and enjoying the real talent. Put the focus where it should be; on the innovative product and NOT on your own mindless and unimaginative ego.

    Aryugaetu had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 10
  • I suppose it is possible that Apple added second button functionality to the MacBook Pro, disabled it by default, forgot to mention it at MacWorld and that no one who tried the machine noticed that it was now a multibutton setup. It stretches the limits of plausibility, but it is technically possible. If that is the case, I’ll stand corrected.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 354
  • I agree with you “Aryugaetu” one hundred percent. I read articles from Apple Matters regularly, and it seems this writer is always pulling negative vibs with Apple products, I don’t know maybe its his job.

    First off lets take Apples entire product line, Its very clear to see that style and looks are very important to them. A clean look. Simple and elegant.

    Second, laptops are basically for mobile users, yes, I do use mine at two different work stations as well as on the road and I have multi-button mice at both locations, but in my bag is a wireless Apple pro mouse, one button and I am quite staisfied with its single button performance on the road. Why a multi-button mouse at my stations, the same reason I have 20” monitors and seperate key boards. Its a portable machine and it needs to be simple.

    Third, if you want to complain about something that probally hits all Powerbook users than here you go. My decision to buy the 15” powerbook. I really wanted the 17”.  You know what? same keyboard, now that sucks, all that laptop and they can’t put an extended keyboard in the 17” model.

    Now here is an article that would raise a few eyes.

    And this being an Apple site, with most articles concerning “computers” can we please leave anything to do with gaming out of the article or discussions unless its is about a specific game. Its a laptop “portable” computer, not a game cube, play station ect.

    Macster2 had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 40
  • For me the jury’s still out over mouse buttons. I know I like it aesthetically, but form should follow function and that’s not a good enough reason to have one button. But I think, though I’m not sure, that I quite like it from a functional standpoint too. User interfaces should be designed to act like physical objects, or like metaphors for physical objects. And the simplicity of point-and-click appeals to me. We aren’t born with an innate knowledge of what right-clicking means, but we all know how to prod.

    But then, if you have a one-button mouse, you’ll still have to right click a lot on modern computers and that should be as easy as possible.


    Benji had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 927
  • Have you ever used a Dell trackpad? Well, I had. For a laptop worth 2k euros, I would expect a much better one, but the trackpad in my D810 is miserable. I’ve been working on an aluminum Powerbook G4 for a year, with no mouse at all and I find the trackpad unbeleivably convenient! Actually, I’ve grown so accustomed to using it, that I don’t use the mouse even when I have it plugged in.

    But when I have to work on the Dell (fortunately for a few minutes each time), I can’t use the trackpad. The sensation and response are awful; and there’s no better alternative to the two-finger scrolling yet, in any other trackpad! It’s the most brilliant feature of it.

    Personally, I don’t know if I would like a second button in my future Mac laptop. Part of this is because I am already used to pressing the single button anywhere; left, right or in the middle. If, all of a sudden, pressing on it in different positions would result in different actions being taken, that would be out of my instictive habits. And I *would* mind if the second button ruined the aesthetics of my laptop.

    Panagiotis Karageorgakis had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 2
  • Panagiotis,
    My experience with Dell trackpads has been regrettable at best. I would expect something better from Apple. Two finger scrolling is brilliant, a nice example of what Apple can do.

    I would think that, as others have mentioned, Apple could keep the one button look while offering two button finctionality. I think is a hack I’m gonna try myself when I get my MacBook Pro.

    All my articles aren’t jabs at Apple. I like Apple stuff, I don’t think they charge too much, I like OS X etc. But just because I like Apple products doesn’t mean that I feel compelled to sing their praises at every oppurtunity. That stuff gets boring.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 354
  • Chris, reading your last few articles, it seems to me that you are more of a Windows user than a Mac user. You ask for more, advanced features, complicating the elegant Mac experience. If you were CEO for Apple, I’m sure you would have lost customers going in this direction.

    For one thing, I don’t think it was time, cost, or anything other than an informed and thought-out consideration for the user, on why they haven’t added a second button.

    When I imagine having my trackpad button split into two and then using it, it becomes apparent to me that It would just over-complicate something, which works much better and more user-friendly by simply using the ctrl button. I don’t need to change placement of my hands to click the ctrl button, but if there were two buttons, I would need to lift and move at least one of my hands.

    Yes, they could hide 2 buttons, and still keep it in the form of one button, like the mighty mouse, and they could even make it possible to switch it back to functionality of one button if people preferred, but it’s likely not many would use the added functionality (probably just like how I switched my mighty mouse to single-button, before promptly selling it on.)

    You compare it to the mighty mouse: “Apple thinks the [mighty mouse] is a bonus for desktop users. For some reason they don’t think that MacBook Pro users would appreciate the extra functionality.” But Chris, it appears a large fact has passed you by in your comparison: When you control a mouse, you use your hand for positioning, leaving your fingers free to click other buttons, but when using a trackpad, you are using those very fingers to control the positioning, not leaving them as free digits, like with a mouse. So it’s not a direct 1-1 comparison.

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 299
  • “Yes, they could hide 2 buttons, and still keep it in the form of one button, like the mighty mouse, and they could even make it possible to switch it back to functionality of one button if people preferred, but it’s likely not many would use the added functionality (probably just like how I switched my mighty mouse to single-button, before promptly selling it on.)”

    Remember LMW that Apple has all kinds of functionality built into the trackpad. You’ve got the old click and drag (w/o keeping the mouse button depressed), two finger scrolling etc How many people actually use these things I have no idea. Still they are there and they complicate using the trackpad for those who are capable of using them. So it is difficult to argue that an optional second button needlessly complicates things when Apple has already demonstrated that they will gladly muddle the trackpad up, if you want it.

    As for my recent articles demanding more complexity, I just don’t see that at all. I wrote an article critical of Apple’s ad (many people would agree that the ad bites) I wrote an article about Steve Jobs luring Microsoft into a trap, wrote a joking keynote translation and wrote something about Google messing up with their video store and wrote an article defending the keynote presentation. It is hard to call that record consistently anti Apple or demanding more complexity.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 354
  • Haha. you didn’t need to list your resume. I guess it isn’t ‘few’ but last two articles, then. Wanting a less stylish ad with more functionality, and this too.

    I guess when you put it that way, they could add a second mouse button in, like the other additions. Although I will stand by my feeling that there is still a big margin between the trackpad functions and a second mouse button, not just in terms of changes to the hardware, but in terms of overall ‘awkward-user-ness’ as well.

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 299
  • First, let me say that I prefer a two-button mouse, and that it’s no big deal that Apple ships with a one-button mouse, because mice are cheap.

    Having said that, I *hate* multibutton trackpads.  I haven’t used a single one I like.  I like being able to press the button with my thumb *wherever* it happens to be.  The ThinkPad trackpad, with its four buttons, for example, drives me bats.  If Apple does anything funky with the trackpad, I pray they at least allow me to continue to use it as a 1-button trackpad.

    What's the Frequency Kenneth? had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 11
  • Actually, Chris - can you honestly say you are able to use a multi-button trackpad thoroughly, and easily enough for you to so badly want it on a MacBook?

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 299
  • I can honestly say I’ve never used one I like. I can also honestly say that I would like the option and I would expect Apple’s version of a multibutton trackpad to be better implemented than any setup I’ve tried so far.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 354
  • I would much rather see dedicated Page Up and Page Down buttons, as well as a forward Delete without having to use third-party hacks.  They need to get rid of the useless enter key.

    g5u1 had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 9
  • I haven’t seen one comment were someone asked this question: Instead of a two-button trackpad, why hasn’t Apple designed a small multi-button wireless mouse that can be slid into a section of the MacBook? They’ve got the remote for Front Row with the iMacs. Is it too hard to believe that they could design a small functional optical mouse that could be hidden inside the MacBook Pro somewhere? Something like that not only would increase Apple’s stand on design sensability, but they would gain greater slaes because they’d be offering something that no other laptop manufacturer is offering…...

    Frank 'viperteq' Young had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 32
  • I just have to say that I hate, and I mean absolutely, positively, cannot stand using a two button trackpad on a laptop.  On a mouse, I can’t live without the multibuttons, however, on a laptop totally different story.  I think a lot of this comes from how they are both used. On a mouse, I have two fingers constantly at the ready hovering over both buttons.  It’s second nature to want to use them both.  However, on the laptop, I have one thumb hovering over the button.  When I use a laptop other than a Mac I basically just pop up a context sensitive menu everytime I try to click on an item and nothing ticks me off more than that.  So, Apple whatever you do, never switch to a two button trackpad.  I’ll still buy Mac’s, but I’ll complain everytime I use it.

    Chris had this to say on Jan 31, 2006 Posts: 5
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