Whither Apple's pointing devices?

Whenever Apple does a Q&A at a release event, I always wonder whether I have any questions I’d really like to ask. Usually, I can’t think of much more than those in the room do, but this time I had one.

Frankly, Apple has done as crap a job with external pointing devices as it had with external keyboards (until the latest “thin” models, which I can see at least some people much preferring to disposable Dell plastic).

The thing is, Apple seems to have put a lot of work into input devices for its portables. The keyboard work obviously translated directly to external devices: desktop keyboards are just larger models of the MacBook keyboard. Mice, however, have seen no real benefits.

Trackpads are clearly the most advanced pointing devices by some reasonable definition. Apple’s latest models equate to a mouse with no less than three discrete two-dimensional scrollwheels (drags with two, three, or four fingers) as well as several one-dimensional scrollwheels (pinching and rotating), with the caveat that you can only use one at a time. I can certainly see that this would be inferior to a real mouse in some circumstances such as games and hand-created artwork (although heavy users of either are likely to use specialized hardware anyway), but for users whose main activities are web browsing or email or keyboard-intensive work (including writing and programming) trackpads can be a terrific choice. When I’m forced to do heavy work (writing and programming) away from my desktop setup I seldom give the trackpad much thought, but at my desktop I have frequently found myself annoyed by a sticky scrollwheel, lack of mousing space, or unresponsive buttons on my Mighty Mouse.

It’s a little crazy that you can’t use the same class of pointing device on both a portable and a desktop setup (which for many means a portable connected to external monitor, keyboard, and pointing device). As far as I know, neither Apple nor anyone else offers a USB multitouch trackpad with gesture support.

I’m curious whether Apple is even playing with external trackpads in the lab, and if so what they’ve learned—it’s possible that most users end up preferring the mouse. I also wonder whether Apple would be willing to force users to choose which pointing device they want. Their marketing strategy has generally been to make decision-making as easy as possible for its customers, but I wouldn’t think that having a few different options for “accessories” would cross the complexity threshold. (The choice between wired and wireless keyboards, for example, was judged to be worthwhile.)

I do think a question of the form “Do you plan to bring your trackpad technology to the desktop in any form?” could elicit some useful information. A stock “we don’t talk about unannounced products” wouldn’t tell you much, but I’m sure Steve Jobs is aware that such an answer would only stoke rumors. At the least, a real answer would probably give some indication about whether they’ve even thought about it, whether it’s something they’ve researched and rejected, or whether it’s something they’re hoping a third party will step up to create.