Magic Sales for a Not-So-Magic Mouse

Holiday spending has seen sales of Apple’s (s aapl) Magic Mouse soar. According to a report by NPD and covered today by AppleInsider, last month saw a twofold increase in Apple’s share of domestic mice sales. By the end of November, Apple had captured 10 percent of the market.

NPD analyst Stephen Baker told AppleInsider:

Sales in November were through the roof. The Magic Mouse had the best month for a mouse product from Apple that we’ve ever seen.

It’s the first time Apple’s share of the domestic mouse market has ever reached double digits, and even more impressive considering the data was compiled from standalone sales. Units sold with new iMacs were not counted.

While that’s fantastic news for Apple, I find myself wondering whether those new Magic Mouse owners aren’t going to be feeling somewhat disappointed because, despite its name, the Magic Mouse is anything but magical. For a company that gets so much of its user experience spot-on, it does keep missing the target with its pointing devices.

Andy Ihnatko said it best:

I can’t think of a single good Apple mouse released this millennium. Ideologically, they’ve all been covered with spray-glitter and rainbow stickers.

When I got my Magic Mouse I admired its diminutive form factor and minimalist lines but it was clearly not an ergonomic design. That super slimline, ground-hugging shape took some getting used to. But aesthetic and ergonomic matters aside, I think the thorniest issue isn’t with the hardware at all. The problem, as I see it, is one of user perception.

You see, users accustomed to the touchy-goodness of an iPhone or MacBook trackpad lament the lack of similar functionality in their supposedly ‘magic’ mouse. The major criticism is usually expressed in the form of common questions, like, Why is there no pinch to zoom functionality? Why do we have to click, when we could tap? Why aren’t more swipe-gestures supported?

“It’s just a software fix,” reviewers on popular Apple tech sites have concluded, “Apple will likely add that functionality later in a software update.”

Well, I don’t think so. In fact, I think Apple will intentionally avoid adding further touch functionality to this mouse, and I think I know why.

Be Careful What You Wish For

In the relatively short time since the Magic Mouse was released in late October, several third-party applications have appeared, both free and paid, that (ahem) ‘tap’ into the Magic Mouse software and foist upon the device all that pinching, swiping, multi-touch functionality people think they want. Well, I also thought I wanted those things…until I got them.

Remember how, with the Mighty Mouse, you had to handle it with care because those side-buttons could be way too sensitive? They were so sensitive, in fact, many people disabled those buttons entirely because they proved such a nuisance. Turns out, having multifunctional touch-sensitive controls all across the surface of the Magic Mouse turns the thing into a far greater nuisance than its “mighty” predecessor ever was.

I swiftly discovered that controls I wanted to trigger (say, a three-finger-tap) often wouldn’t register. I’d spend an inordinate amount of time obsessive-compulsively tapping the mouse with minimal success. Pinching and zooming was literally painful, transforming my hand into a deformed claw of knotted knuckles and cramp. Yet, for all my efforts, it still never zoomed in a controlled, predictable manner.

Worse still, functions I didn’t intentionally invoke would trigger while I was doing something else entirely. It got to the point where simply moving the pointer across the screen — an action so natural and normal I normally give it no conscious thought — was now an event demanding deliberate care and attention. I tried two of the most popular apps and got the same results each time.

In short , it’s not a software problem, but rather, a limitation imposed by the very form factor of the mouse. As long as Apple wants its flagship pointing device to be small, svelte and sexy, it’s just not going to be the right shape and size for full-fledged multi-touch controls.

Software like MagicPrefs introduces hugely varied additional functionality

Apple, I’m sure, did a lot of R&D to determine what were the most appropriate default touch controls for the Magic Mouse. Therefore, a feature’s absence is a deliberate choice. It makes perfect sense. One of the most celebrated aspects of Apple’s user-experience is its consistency; across all Macs the user experience is predictable and dependable. There are rarely unexpected (or unwelcome) surprises. Much of the time, that’s made possible by Apple’s minimalist, ‘less-is-more’ approach to interface design.

That is why so many people disliked the Mighty Mouse. In trying to do so much it was just too unpredictable and ruined the user experience. And that is why the Magic Mouse is so limited. It’s better this way.

I just wonder if all those new Magic Mouse owners will agree?