July 2010

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I have a theory about Apple. Like all good Apple theories it superficially fits the facts, is an entertaining mental exercise but is probably wrong.

Apple does not believe in mice.

For a company that excels at hardware design, the mice they’ve released since the return of Steve Jobs stick out in their catalogue like sore thumbs.

The hockey puck mouse from the original iMac was clunky and uncomfortable. The Pro Mouse was smooth and comfortable if bare-bones and uninspiring, but every first-time user had to have the “it’s all one button” design explained to them. Every feature of the Mighty Mouse (accidental-squeeze-buttons, gungy trackball, easily confused click-surface) was broken. The Magic Mouse felt like a promising tech demo that escaped the lab too early. And now Apple have released a multi-touch trackpad.

I’m sure I’m not alone in that the first thing I do when I buy a new desktop Mac is replace the mouse, although my current choice in pointing device may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

My theory is that someone high up in Apple’s hardware design pecking order, maybe Jobs, maybe Ive, maybe their whole hardware brains trust, does not believe in the mouse. Sure it works, but it’s not the right way to solve the problem of manipulating things on-screen. It’s indirect and unintuitive. It tends to sprout more and more buttons. It’s just... wrong!

You could hear it in Jobs’ voice when he introduced the iPad, extolling the joys of having the web “at your fingertips”. There’s no place in Apple's world view for clumsy intermediaries like mice or styluses. There must be a better way! But for the life of them, these visionaries, designers and engineers can’t work out what that better way is for your desktop PC.

Typically when Apple find themselves in this situation, they sit on the problem until they have a solution. That’s why we waited so long for the iPhone and iPad and why we were so blown away when they were finally released. With pointing devices, they don’t have the luxury of procrastination.

You can’t make a great product if you don't believe in it, but you can’t sell a computer without a mouse.

This morning, Blizzard (publishers of the popular Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo game franchises) announced plans to require contributors to their online forums to post under their real names. Predictably, this caused the forums to go nuclear.

This is phase two in a deliberate campaign. Phase one was the deployment of Real ID, a feature that allowed players of their games to exchange messages and online status, but only if they also shared their real names and email addresses. There was no technical reason why this had to be the case—no other popular Instant Messaging service requires such disclosure—the messaging and presence features were bait on the “Real Names, Please” hook.

Responding to user feedback, a Blizzard poster on the forums added (emphasis mine):

We put a lot of thought into this change and have a long-term vision for the Real ID service and wanted to make sure that we communicated ahead of time and very clearly as to what will be changing and how.

Neither of the imminent releases of Starcraft II or World of Warcraft: Cataclysm are “long-term” by any stretch of the word. This isn’t the end of the plan to expand the reach of Real ID in Blizzard's online services. It is a grand ongoing experiment, and a big gamble at that. The evils of anonymity in gaming communities are well-documented. Blizzard are aiming, as far as I can tell, to use a series of small but ever-encroaching incentives to make their Battle.net service the first such community where anonymity is the exception instead of the rule.

A few years ago I'd have said this was impossible. A person’s right to keep their online existence separate to their “real life” was not questioned, and in many cases considered a necessary defence against real-life enemies like draconian hiring managers who don't understand that weird Internet thing. Nowadays the overwhelming success of Facebook suggests that the bulk of Internet denizens don't care if their their real names are splashed across The Googles, and don't care that their on– and offline lives are hopelessly intertwingled.

It's a generational change, and while I don’t doubt Blizzard have called it right, perhaps they might have called it a little too early.