OS X Lion: Revised Scrolling

Introduced on the desktop, scrollbars have afforded users the ability to move around canvases too large for their parent windows, all while passively notifying them of their place in a document. They had become a constant in computer interaction, that is, until Apple released the iPhone with touch gestures. Now, your fingers interact directly with the content, flicking the canvas as if it were a tangible piece of paper. With this change in scrolling interaction, Apple also did away with the constant visual display of the scrollbar, and removed the scroll buttons completely. Not feeling content, Apple is looking at moving this new scrolling method from iOS over to the Mac in OS X Lion. Is the Mac ready for iOS scrolling?

At WWDC 2011, Apple announced that 73% of all Macs sold are laptops. This explains Apple’s push to translate many iOS touch-gestures to the Mac, and why they continue to cater to the trackpad. To assist desktop users, Apple first introduced the Magic Mouse, giving mouse users the ability to use touch gestures. More recently, they released the Magic Trackpad, their offering to bring a large trackpad to the desktop. All signs point to Apple making a huge push towards touch interactions on the Mac, and OS X Lion appears to be the next step.

The Good

Being a longtime iOS user, I have come to appreciate the touch interactions it first introduced. Pinching and flicking the screen feels very natural, and provides a rewarding experiencing. There is something about directly interacting with the content that makes you feel more in control. This is the sole reason I am looking forward to iOS scrolling on the Mac.

The Bad

Of course not everything is rosy, and there are some instances of iOS scrolling that I despise.

One of my biggest pain-points with iOS scrolling is not knowing where I sit on the canvas. Upon opening a document, I have no easy, passive way of seeing how much content I have available. The existing Mac scrollbars passively show me where I stand on the canvas, as well as how large my viewport is. The iOS way hides the scrollbars by default, requiring me first to manually move the canvas to see them. This means every time I want to see where I fall in a document, I must actively move the canvas.

Another benefit of the Mac’s scrollbars is the ability to jump directly to a specific place in the document. If I were at the top of a 300-page document, and wanted to jump 75% down, I could place my mouse cursor three-quarters the way down on the scrollbar track, and Option+Click. Another option would be to slide the scrollbar to the appropriate place on the track. With the loss of the visual scrollbar, how can this be accomplished?

On iOS, the developer is expected to create a solution. For example, Apple’s Contacts app displays the alphabet vertically along the side, allowing the user to jump directly to entries that start with the selected letter. Although this works great for the respective app, it now burdens the developer with the task of implementing a function that was once managed by the OS. Even worse, each developer may solve the problem differently, leaving users with many nonstandard implementations to learn and recall.


Although I enjoy flicking the canvas in iOS, it appears to have a few areas that need reevaluated before it can truly replace the existing scrollbars on my Mac. The good news is that Apple provides a preference that allows the user to control when the scrollbars are presented. This should help some of the users to transition at a slower pace, while giving developers time to implement their own jump-to implementations.