Much Ado About Scrolling

Arguably, no other feature has caused more of an uproar than OS X Lion’s new “natural” — that is, inverted — scrolling. On a trackpad, for example, you now swipe up to move the page down, and down to move the page up. Additionally, in keeping with last October’s “Back to the Mac” event, Apple has brought its fading scrollbars to the desktop: gone are the scroll arrows and alleys, and the thumb now only appears when in use.

Ever since the first developer preview of Lion, many people, even the most Mac-savvy among them, have been disturbed by these changes. I know several of my Mac-owning friends will soon be experiencing a similar reaction, so to them and all of the afflicted, I offer two reassurances:

  1. Yes. You can turn these features off. But!
  2. Give it a week first. If you’re still unhappy, then you can turn them off.

As John Gruber and Dan Benjamin discussed at length on last week’s episode of The Talk Show, Apple seeks to bring a more natural feel to the way we interact with content on our machines. As Gruber put it, Apple has “removed a slight layer of abstraction” by doing away with scrollbars.

According to the naysayers, this form of scrolling is a perfect fit for iOS, but doesn’t make sense when translated to the desktop. On the iPhone and iPad, screen real estate is limited, so the presence of a permanent scrollbar would have been both displeasing to the eye and a waste of space. Further, the touch interface makes the inverted scrolling feel natural because your finger is making direct contact with the content. Flicking the page up to go down feels good, as does going in the opposite direction.

As for the fading, the arguments against it are well-founded. An always-present thumb shows your position on the page, and its size allows you to know approximately how many more screens of content you have left before you reach the bottom; i.e. a thumb that’s a third the height of your window lets you know you’re looking at a third of the total content on that page. Subsequently, you know you have about two more screens worth of content to go.

For my part, it only took a couple of days before I got used to the new scrolling, and I’ve always loved the fading scrollbars. Everything looks much cleaner. To help ease the transition, imagine you’re grabbing and moving the content itself rather than a scroll thumb. Apple clearly believes we’ll be better off accepting the changes, since the inverted scrolling is described as “natural” in System Preferences, implying that the old way is unnatural. Again, I recommend sticking with it for a week or two, but I think you’ll start to prefer it much sooner than that.

For a more impressive analysis of Lion’s scrollbars, check out John Siracusa’s colossal Lion review over on Ars Technica. It’s an incredible piece of work.