When NOT to Follow Steve Jobs

“Under the most strictly held conditions of temperature, pressure and humidity the organism will do as it damn well pleases.”

— Murphy’s Laws

Recently, I reviewed the ZAGGmate, an integrated iPad clamshell case with a keyboard inside. The ergonomics of that device dictate that the keyboard be horizontal but the iPad and its iOS be vertical, and that means reaching out and touching in between keystrokes. Independent of the review of the product, and it’s a great product that received a high rating, that process gave me an “Oops” feeling, a cognitive dissonance.


The ZAGGmate on my desk

After all, this is exactly what Steve Jobs said we shouldn’t have to do during his special “Back to the Mac” presentation in October, 2010 (Available on iTunes.) At about 56m 30s into the presentation, Mr. Jobs shows what he means on the big screen and says:

Don't Do This!

Steve says: “Don’t do this!”  (Courtesy: Apple)

We thought about this years ago. We’ve done tons of user testing on this. And it turns out, it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical. It gives great demo, but after a short period of time, you start to fatigue. And after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off. It doesn’t work. It’s ergonomically terrible. Touch surfaces want to be horizontal…hence iPads. For notebooks, that’s why we’ve perfected our multi-touch trackpads over the years.”

A bit later, Mr. Jobs went on to introduce the new MacBook Airs with all that in mind.

What Mr. Jobs left out of the discussion, however, is that there can be another mode, namely, the ZAGGmate kind of mode where one has a considerable amount of typing to do and must only occasionally touch the iPad display. For example, a long e-mail with thousands of keystrokes can terminate with a simple touch of the Send button. And when that task is done, just pick up the iPad and place it in your lap.

The Public Stance

The reason for Mr. Jobs’s adamant remarks is that a major system vendor has to look at the global picture for all customers and build a corresponding, consistent OS. The comments by Mr. Jobs are right on the mark when it comes to designing the iPad and the MacBook Air because Apple is responsible for defining how the product ought to work, in general, for most customers. Not only that, but Apple has an agenda for moving us quickly into the future for competitive reasons, and that pace is often too fast for some. Accessory makers, however, are free to exploit holes in that strategy that cater to the needs of a class of individuals.

For example, the iPad’s on-screen keyboard doesn’t have cursor keys. (Mr. Jobs tried to get away with that back in 1984 when the original Mac’s keyboard was missing cursor keys — sooo yesterday, right? It created an outcry, and Apple later had to cave.) Instead, today, we have to gently touch the iPad just the right way in order to bring up a magnifying glass editor. Frankly, that has to be one of the worst design elements of the iPad, and having a physical keyboard with cursor keys is just so much more practical. But Apple can’t admit that in public.

Original Mac Keyboard

Original Mac Keyboard (Courtesy Lowendmac.com)

Hybrid Modes are Common

And so, it seems, there’s room for a hybrid mode in which people who must do a lot of typing but want the portability of the iPad and will really like a product like the ZAGGmate, even though it contradicts the purest of Apple’s design intentions as seen in the “Back to the Mac” presentation.

IPad Magnifying Glass 

A Terrible UI for some

This matter will become even more important in Mac OS X 10.7, “Lion,” as Apple tries to integrate some of the best ideas of iOS into Mac OS X. There will be all the hoopla about what Apple says (and wants to coerce us into doing) and then there will be idiosyncratic features built in that, under the hood, allow millions of customers who go their own way, seek customized solutions, and look for accessory developers who can help them.

Of course, part of the charm of Apple (and any good company) is that while they publicly talk about the purest of ideologies, in private the company will admit to these kinds of concessions and user needs and even provide APIs. Sometimes that confuses or irritates pundits from the other camps, but we just smile, keep typing and move on.