Why the iPad needs to embrace mice and trackpads

Last week, Brydge, the company that makes my favorite add-on keyboard for the iPad, announced a new iPad Pro accessory that includes both a keyboard and a trackpad. Adding external pointing devices to the iPad wasn’t possible until iOS 13 added support for Bluetooth mice as a part of the Assistive Touch suite of accessibility features.

While some will consider the mere possibility of adding a mouse or trackpad to an iPad to be sacrilege, I prefer to see it as an additional option that can improve the iPad’s flexibility in certain circumstances. However, Apple’s support for external pointing devices is very much a first draft. It needs to continue pushing this feature forward in iPadOS 14—and in doing so, the platform could reap some surprising rewards.

Mousing in iPadOS 13

In iOS 13, Apple added support for a cursor—with caveats. If you attach a mouse to an iPad via USB or Bluetooth and turn on Assistive Touch, you’ll see a virtual finger on the screen (it’s a circle with a smaller circle inside it) that you can move around with the device. Even at its smallest size, it’s still pretty large—but so is a fingertip.

ios13 assistive touch cursor Apple

The iOS 13 Assistive Touch cursor.

Using a mouse with an iPad is a great way to understand just how smart the operating system is when it comes to intuiting what you want to do when you tap the screen with your big, fat fingers. As a Mac user, I expect to need to click precisely the right pixels on the screen or come away disappointed—but on my iPad, if I click in the general vicinity it almost invariably does the right thing.

Unfortunately, the fact that the cursor is a virtual finger is also a drawback. So many iPad interface features are based on gestures, and it’s less fun to try to emulate a flick of a finger with a mouse. Using a prototype of Brydge’s keyboard/trackpad combo, which makes my iPad feel very much like a MacBook, felt even worse—because I expected to be able to use all the Magic Trackpad gestures I’ve internalized over the years, and they’re just not supported. (I’d love to connect a Magic Trackpad to an iPad and then swipe from app to app.)

I’m also disappointed that iPadOS 13 doesn’t appropriately support the one cursor that’s been on iOS for years—the text-editing cursor you see when you put two fingers down on the iPad’s software keyboard. In this mode, the iPad is basically emulating a trackpad, letting you precisely place a cursor, select text, and more. That feature hasn’t been integrated at all, which is a shame, because it would really improve writing and editing on the iPad—and it’s right there for the taking.

iPadOS 13 also introduced an upgraded version of Safari that emulates a desktop browser, so more websites are accessible on the iPad. It’s a clever feature that works surprisingly well most of the time, interpreting how pages expect you to behave with a mouse connected and then emulating that behavior with taps of your finger. The one thing it doesn’t do is recognize when you’ve got an actual pointing device attached and just behave like a normal web browser.

In iPadOS 13, external pointing device support has to be awkwardly toggled on and off every time you want to connect a device. The iPad should be able to sense when a device is connected and use it automatically, just like it works on a Mac.