Why adding mouse support to iPad is a touch of genius [Opinion]

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IPad mouse
Confused? You will be.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

A recent rumor says the iPad Pro will soon be compatible with USB-C mice. The idea is that you can just plug one in, and — perhaps by enabling an option in the Accessibility settings — use a mouse just like you would use a mouse on the Mac.

But what would such a feature look like? And would it actually be useful, or would it just be confusing? Let’s think about that.

USB-C LOL

First up, the idea of plugging in a wired mouse seems ridiculous. The rumors all seem to focus on plugging in a mouse, but it seems likely that Apple would support Bluetooth pointing devices, too. So, USB-C-only would be bad.

‘If you see a mouse, they blew it’

This will be the main headline if Apple ever adds mouse support to iOS. The other one will be: “Finally.”

But would this really be “blowing it?” After all, the iPad already kind of supports mouse input. When you’re typing on the keyboard, you can use two fingers to activate trackpad mode, then move a cursor around the text field. The problem is, trackpad mode is not available if you use an external keyboard.

Pretty much everyone who types a lot on the iPad would love trackpad support, in just this exact scenario. Reaching up from the keyboard to touch the screen is no easier on the iPad than it is on the Mac.

Also, there is precedent for keyboard control of the iPad. You can use the arrow keys to scroll through the Spotlight search results list, for example.

So, assuming that mouse/trackpad support for text editing is good, why not extend it to the rest of the iPad?

What would iPad mouse support look like?

Let’s assume that mouse input would work exactly the same on the iPad as it does on the Mac. Plug in a mouse, and a cursor appears on the screen. You could click to tap. You could click and hold to drag. Would you have to double-click to launch an app, or would a single-click work?

This is the first problem. Mouse-based interfaces (macOS and Windows) have one set of UI conventions. Just think about how painful it is to see someone double-click on a web link.

Touch-based UIs, like iOS, have their own conventions. Which would win out? If you’re coming from a Mac, you’ll prefer desktop mouse behavior. If you’re coming from the iPhone, double-clicking on iOS will seem absurd.

And what about right-clicking? Accessing the 3-D Touch features, perhaps.

Accessibility

iOS already has a kind of support for pointing devices. With Switch Control, located in the Accessibility section of the Settings app, you can set up a pointing device to move between on-screen buttons and press them. But it’s not really anything like mouse support.

If mouse support does come to iOS, hiding it inside the accessibility settings is a good idea. That way, it’s there for power users (aka people who like to change settings), while staying out of the way for everyone else. The chance of Apple requiring a mouse to use iOS is approximately 0%. By hiding the setting away in the accessibility section, Apple would make it clear that this isn’t a mainstream feature.

Mouse for iPad is probably a good idea

I used to hate the idea of mouse support on iOS, but now I think, why not? You could keep using the iPad as designed, with complex touch interactions. But when you need to — or just prefer to — you can switch to a mouse.

I would already L-O-V-E trackpad support in text-editing apps. And a mouse pointer would be a better way to select and move a bunch of files in the Files app than the current method, which is to use one hand to tappity-tap all those files, and another to hold onto the collected stack and drag it.

Also, don’t underestimate the appeal of mouse support for switchers. People who use computers use mice and trackpads. Letting them do the same on iOS, even in a limited fashion, might attract more customers.

Whatever happens, one thing’s certain. There’s no way I’m buying a USB-C mouse to plug into my iPad. But I’d love to use my old Mac’s trackpad from time to time.