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By Jason Snell

9 questions about the rumored iPad Smart Keyboard with trackpad

Brydge’s iPad keyboard with trackpad.

Wayne Ma of The Information is reporting that a Smart Keyboard for iPad is coming that will include a built-in pointing device:

Apple is planning to release an iPad keyboard accessory later this year that will include a built-in trackpad, the latest step in its effort to position the tablet device as an alternative to laptop computers, according to a person familiar with the matter. The company will likely release the accessory alongside the next version of the iPad Pro expected later this year, the person added.

Ever since iOS betas added new keyboard features last month, it has seemed clear that Apple has been readying a new keyboard accessory for the iPad. It’s not clear exactly what form that product will take. This report suggests it might be an even more radical change from the existing Smart Keyboard design that’s more or less survived intact since the fall of 2015.

I’m excited. For a long time I’ve been an advocate for iPad keyboards and pointing devices, and this potential product would offer a way for Apple to differentiate the iPad Pro from its increasingly capable lower-end iPads.

But I’ve got a lot of questions, too.

Is this replacing the Smart Keyboard, or priced above it? Let’s assume that this new keyboard accessory will only work on the new iPad Pro models that are rumored to be announced in late March. Would Apple continue to offer the current Smart Keyboard for those models, and offer this as a higher-priced, higher-functionality option? It all depends on the specs of this product. If it’s more expensive, thicker, and heavier, it will be a turn-off for some users who like the current Smart Keyboard. Then again, it would be very Apple-like to offer only a single style of keyboard.

What does it mean to have included pointer support? The Information’s report says “built-in trackpad,” which would imply a keyboard that’s pushed forward with a trackpad underneath in a wrist-rest area. The problem is that the current iPad keyboard doesn’t have a wrist-rest area at all. This would require a pretty dramatic re-think of the Smart Keyboard, in order to create space for a trackpad to live. (More on the geometry issues below.) In the past, Apple has filed for patents for touch sensors sitting atop a keyboard. I can imagine a keyboard that would work like a trackpad when you put two fingers down and moved them around, as you do today on the iPad’s software keyboard. (I’ve got no idea if that technology exists, but it’s a fun idea.)

What does a trackpad do to iPad geometry? If you’ve got a larger Smart Keyboard with keys and a trackpad, how does the Smart Keyboard fold? Microsoft’s Surface tablets feature keyboard covers that are the exact size of their device’s corresponding screen—providing plenty of room for a trackpad. But there’s no laptop-style hinge on those covers, which forced Microsoft to build a kickstand flap into the back of the Surface. Kickstands are bad. They add complexity to the hardware design, are more awkward to set up, and feel terrible if you try to use them in your lap. What are Apple’s alternatives? Adding a hinge (a la the Brydge keyboards) requires weight for balance, which makes the keyboard quite heavy. Up to now, Apple has gotten away with clever folding systems that keep the iPad upright. I hope it’s got another one up its sleeve.

What kind of keyboard is it? I know this isn’t exactly about the trackpad, but as long as I’m mentioning weight issues, it’s worth pondering whether Apple will stick with the fabric-based design of the Smart Keyboard (which I quite like!), or if it will change to something that feels a bit more like a traditional laptop keyboard with individual keys.

Is this trackpad for Assistive Touch? The current way to drive a cursor via an external pointing device is by turning on Assistive Touch within Accessibility settings. The Assistive Touch cursor is a virtual finger that works, but feels severely lacking compared to Mac pointers. Unless Apple’s been hiding a major iPadOS update that makes cursor support vastly better, it’s hard to imagine Apple trying to sell people on an accessory that requires turning on an accessibility feature that’s not really up to its own standards.

What if the trackpad controlled the text cursor? There is another cursor embedded in iOS, and it’s been there for a few years now—the I-Beam cursor used for text editing. Maybe this accessory’s trackpad will be sold (at least initially) as a text-editing utility. My great complaint about Assistive Touch is that it doesn’t drive that text-editing cursor, which would be a massive productivity boost for me as someone who writes an awful lot on iPad. What if Apple sold the new accessory as a trackpad to aid in text editing, with Assistive Touch continuing to be off by default? That might work.

What about iPadOS 14? If an iPad Pro with a pointing-device accessory ships this spring, it opens an awful lot of possibilities for iPadOS 14 this summer and fall. I have a hard time believing that Apple would sell a pointing device for iPad and not make a major effort to improve the user experience in iPadOS 14—and replace Assistive Touch with a more expansive feature that’s on by default when a pointing device is connected. (That would benefit users of Bluetooth-based trackpads and mice, too.)

Will there be multitouch gestures? When I tried the Brydge iPad keyboard with trackpad, the feature I missed the most were all the gestures I’ve internalized on my Magic Trackpad. Using an iPad would be improved if you could optionally scroll documents with two fingers, swipe sideways with three fingers to switch apps, or even invoke multitasking or return to the home screen via a four-finger swipe. The more Magic Trackpad features Apple can bring to the iPad, the better.

Will people complain about how the iPad isn’t a laptop and doesn’t need a trackpad, or a keyboard, or a stylus? I’m just kidding. There will always be people who will complain when the subject of iPad keyboards and pointing devices comes up. Apple’s original Keyboard Dock for iPad in 2010 didn’t stop them. The arrival of the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil in 2015 didn’t stop them. Why should 2020 be any different?

That said, I think most of us would agree that the iPad is, at its core, a tablet device—and that using a keyboard or pointing device or stylus should be an additional option, not a requirement. I can’t see Apple changing that, ever.

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