Waiting for Universal Control: The Future of Work with Screens

Waiting for Universal Control: The Future of Work with Screens

224 days ago, during their annual WWDC keynote, Apple announced a feature that almost no one will use. It is called Universal Control, and it will allow you to share the use of the same mouse and keyboard across your Mac and iPad (at the same time). Beyond that, it will also let you “push through” the edge of the display on your Mac and have the cursor show up on the iPad, as if by magic. The reason why no one will use it is two-fold. First, most folks don’t use an iPad alongside a Mac (let alone have access to modern enough versions of both that it is possible). For most purposes, you don’t need an iPad when you are working on a Mac. Second, the sharing the input across multiple devices is already a well established (and extremely niche) category of solutions. The tool, whether in software or hardware, is called a KVM switch. So, most people that want to do this, already have found a solution. I currently use Keypad for just this purpose.

And yet, nearly every day since June 7 of 2021, I have checked the beta releases of MacOS for this singular feature. Whenever a new beta drops, I rush to Twitter to see if there is any news on Universal Control being a part of the release. Inevitably, there are folks reporting on it, but sparingly few. There have been a couple of times that I thought it was coming, or was partially enabled by hacking together a few options that Apple accidentally available. But, no version that has shipped thus far has never looked as buttery smooth as the original demo, so I am still waiting with bated breath for its official release.

So, why am I obsessed with this obscure feature that so few will use?

Because I will use it, every day. It is the way that I want to work, always. I also believe it represents a large part of how we all will work in the future.

I imagine a future in which:

  • Wherever you look and whatever whatever you focus upon, your devices/surfaces/objects will understand this attention and will allow you to interact with the given tool without having to choose a corresponding set of input devices or ways of interacting. It will be contextually aware both of you as the user and of all of the other devices/surface/objects around, and you will be able to seamlessly transition to anything you focus upon next without having to think about it.
  • Any device can become an input device. Your phone can be an input for your TV. Your watch can be an input for your phone or computer. And likely, your voice can be an input for all of them.
  • Screens will have different form factors (touch and large, small, pocketable, rugged, etc.) but they will all run enough of the same code to bend to whatever purpose you dream up. You will get to decide what is on those screens and what input methods are most important for them. The file system will be shared, as will your private data (across the devices, not with others). Your clipboard, and your revision history will be shared too.
  • Any screens that you put next to one another will create more real estate for your work and play. There will be no “second screens.” Rather, you will be able to choose your “Screen Suite.” The phone you hold in your hand will know what tv show you are watching and the documents you are working on, and you will be able to pull content between all of them.

In this version of our future, your attention is the only thing that will determine what (and how many) screens will be connected. You will determine how you want to “control” the screens, whether that includes a keyboard and mouse or not. But, for this to become our future, Universal Control needs to become our present.

So, Apple, please release this feature already!

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