By Harry McCracken

The gorilla arm paradox, and other mysteries





Subscribe to our newsletter

By subscribing, you agree with Revue’s Terms of Service and Privacy Policy and understand that Technologizer will receive your email address.

The gorilla arm paradox, and other mysteries
By Harry McCracken • Issue #6 • View online
Hello! Sorry that it’s been a while since my last installment. I’m still getting my newsletter-writing rhythm down, and hope that future issues will come along at a rapid-enough clip that I don’t feel the need to begin with an apology. Here we go…

Good grief, we're still debating gorilla arm?
That was the headline on a 2010 Wired article by Tim Carmody. It pretty much declared that the computer industry had decided that putting a touchscreen on a laptop would never make sense, and referenced “gorilla arm syndrome”–the notion that repeatedly lifting up your arm to touch a screen would leave it, in the words of the New Hacker’s Dictionary, “sore, cramped, and oversized.” (The term goes back at least to the early 1980s–here it is being used in a 1983 issue of InfoWorld.)
After Carmody wrote his piece, a funny thing happened: Microsoft introduced Windows 8, ushering in an era of touchscreen laptops, including both conventional clamshell models and those which converted for use as a tablet. Today, it’s Windows laptops without touchscreens that feel like outliers.
But has that changed how people compute? In an entirely anecdotal exercise, I recently asked my Twitter pals who own touch-enabled Windows laptops whether they use the feature, and many said they did—not for everything, but for a fair chunk of the tasks that can be performed with a tap or a swipe. Others said they didn’t care for touch. But only one person raised an objection that sounded anything like concern over gorilla arm syndrome.
Harry McCracken
How many of you have a Windows laptop with a touchscreen? How much do you use this feature?
As touchscreens became an almost-standard feature in Windowsland, another funny thing happened: Apple became increasingly steadfast in its belief that Macs should not sport them. Back in 2008, during the Q&A at a Mac launch event, I’d asked Steve Jobs himself about the possibility of touchscreen Macs. He allowed that the company had considered the possibility but had decided they didn’t make sense–for the time being, anyhow. A couple of years later, when Carmody wrote his story, Jobs’ resistance seemed to have hardened: He said that “it doesn’t work” and “after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off.”
Last month, in an interview with Wired’s Lauren Goode, Apple software honcho Craig Federighi seemed to rule out touchscreen Macs based on the same concern:
When addressing my question about whether iOS apps moving to MacOS is a natural precursor to touchscreen Macs, Federighi told me he’s “not into touchscreens” on PCs and doesn’t anticipate he ever will be. “We really feel that the ergonomics of using a Mac are that your hands are rested on a surface, and that lifting your arm up to poke a screen is a pretty fatiguing thing to do,” he said.Federighi added that he doesn’t think the touchscreen laptops out there today—which he referred to as “experiments"—have been compelling. "I don’t think we’ve looked at any of the other guys to date and said, how fast can we get there?” (It’s worth noting that Microsoft’s Surface laptop, which has a touchscreen and is considered a top MacBook rival, has received largely positive reviews.)
Now, I don’t question the sincerity of Federighi’s rationale. But it does take some mental calisthenics to reconcile it with the fact that Apple sells the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard, two products which, when used together, have you resting your hands on a surface and then lifting your arm to poke a screen, Federighi’s boss, Tim Cook, has not only touted the iPad Pro/Smart Keyboard combo as a laptop replacement but said that he doesn’t bother to take a Mac when traveling. He does not–as far as I know–suffer from gorilla arm.
Nor do I. And for close to seven years, I’ve used an iPad in a keyboard case as my primary computing device. In all the years that I’ve been raising my arm to the screen to tap icons, scroll through text, and perform other actions, it’s never felt like an ergonomic burden, or even something I give much thought to one way or another. There are certainly instances when using a mouse or trackpad might have felt easier—for selecting large chunks of text, for instance—but that has less to do with inherent problems with touchscreen computing than it does the design of iOS and iOS apps.
To recap: Windows laptops have sprouted touchscreens, and don’t cause gorilla arm. The iPad Pro can be used like a laptop, and doesn’t cause gorilla arm. Does this mean that Apple’s refusal to put touchscreens on Macs indicates the company is clinging to once-conventional wisdom which is out of whack with reality?
Not entirely. A few thoughts:
On bigger screens, gorilla arm seems like more of an issue. I don’t have to reach that far to jab at my 12.9" iPad Pro, but a 15" screen would involve more stretching to get to the top of the screen. And tapping and swiping on a 21.5” or 27” iMac screen would be silly, unless Apple adopted a tilting stand akin to the one on Microsoft’s Surface Studio.
Apple might not want to put touchscreens on some, but not all, Macs. One of the virtues–or at least distinguishing characteristics–of Macs over Windows PCs is their lack of fragmentation. (Usually: If Apple’s Touch Bar has been disappointing, it may be in part because it’s only available on certain Macs, giving developers less incentive to care about it.) Touch couldn’t have a transformative impact on MacOS if it wasn’t available on all Macs–which it wouldn’t be, at least at first.  
Windows went through hell to implement touch. Windows 8, the first version to take a touchscreen interface seriously, was a painful transition–for Microsoft and plenty of users–and much of the pain was an inevitable result of trying to graft a new interface onto an old operating system. That doesn’t have anything to do with gorilla arm per se, but it’s an experience Apple surely doesn’t want to repeat with MacOS.
Touch makes most sense on a convertible PC. Like Microsoft’s Surface, for instance, or at least a clamshell laptop with a screen that can be rotated around. If Apple were to go all-in on touchscreen Macs, it would need to figure out this aspect as well. And from the company’s perspective, it might still end up with something that was less touch-friendly than an iPad. 
Of course, Apple saying that doing something would be a terrible idea is often simply a sign that it’s not ready to do that particular something. But I can’t think of another example of denials going on for a decade and people still tossing around whether a change will or should happen. Here are Jason Snell and John Gruber doing so last month:
Would Apple ever make a convertible MacBook? | Macworld
Daring Fireball: From the DF Archive: 'What if the iPad Smart Keyboard Had a Trackpad?'
I don’t particularly hanker for a touchscreen on my own MacBook Pro, so if Apple never comes around to building touch Macs, I’ll be OK. But I do wonder: Is it possible that there will be such a thing as Macs a decade from now, and that Apple will still be explaining why it doesn’t make sense for them to incorporate touchscreen technology?
Patronizing ads are not our friend
This will be brief. If your town is anything like my town, it’s currently plastered with ads from Facebook about the measures the company is taking to rid its platform of clickbait, fake accounts, fake news, and other elements which are at best irritants and at worst hazardous to our democracy. And … I don’t get them.
Why is Facebook spending beaucoup bucks to tell us that these things aren’t our friends, as if our misperceptions were the problem it’s addressing?
Plenty of people have used the word “apologize” when referring to these ads (and Facebook’s similar TV spot). But to me, the striking thing about all this messaging is that it’s contrition-free. Which leaves it struggling to say anything coherent about the situation that Facebook presently finds itself in.
In the end, the patronizing tone of this media blitz doesn’t matter nearly as much as the meaningful steps Facebook is taking to give users more control over their data and make it harder for nefarious activity to occur on the platform. Still, ads that showed even a smidge of self-awareness would have been so much better.
More by me
Here, in case you missed them, are a couple of Fast Company stories I’ve written since the last installment of this newsletter. Thanks as always for reading, and feel free to drop me a line at with your thoughts on anything in this newsletter–or anything else, for that matter.
Meet the AI that IBM Research is teaching to debate human beings
Amazon wants its delivery network to include hundreds of startups
Did you enjoy this issue?
Harry McCracken

A roundup of technology-related stuff I'm writing, reading, and remembering.

In order to unsubscribe, click here.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
Powered by Revue