Google Maps + Apple Magic Mouse = fail

My experience with Google Maps not getting along with Apple's multitouch mouse was really annoying. But in the last couple weeks, it's become intolerable.

Apple's Magic Mouse
Apple's Magic Mouse Stephen Shankland/CNET

I have tremendous respect for two groups of engineers: Apple's hardware designers and Google's Web programmers. But when it comes to Google Maps, boy, do I wish the two got along better.

For months now, I've suffered from a problem using the mouse on Google Maps: when I'd click and drag to pan the map using the Magic Mouse, the view would zoom out when I released the button. Instead of feeling the magic, I felt hexed.

The issue stems from the fact that sliding your finger forward or backward along the Magic Mouse is equivalent to using the scroll wheel on an ordinary mouse, and that motion triggers the zoom action on Google Maps. The problem appears to be, though, that Google's mechanism views the Apple mouse as particularly twitchy.

I've endured the issue for months, issuing occasional grumbles. But two recent developments led me to more audible cursing and, eventually, the decision to yank my lowly Logitech USB mouse out of my Windows machine and plug it into my iMac. It's a step down from the Magic Mouse, a wireless mouse that responds to multitouch gestures.

The first development that pushed me over the edge was the arrival of geotagging in Lightroom 4, which lets you assign location data to photos by dragging them to a version of Google Maps that appears in the Adobe photo software. The second development -- which also directly led to this commentary -- was the arrival this week of Google Map Maker in France, where I live.

Adobe's Lightroom 4 uses Google Maps for its geotagging interface, as does Apple's competing Aperture.
Adobe's Lightroom 4 uses Google Maps for its geotagging interface, as does Apple's competing Aperture. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Lightroom problem was annoying, since I spend a lot of time taking photos. The Map Maker problem led me to abandon my idea to add a local trail to the Google's database.

The problem for me is even worse on Microsoft's Bing Maps, which seems to perpetually recede when I use it with the Magic Mouse. But I don't use Bing Maps much, and it's not built into any of my software.

Google's aware of the situation and has been trying to adjust its software. In a statement, the company said:

Mouse inputs in browsers are limited, so it's difficult to detect the type of mouse device or the strength of the gesture someone might be using. In 2010, we made an update in our system to filter out certain types of mouse gestures, which has improved the issue, and we're continually tweaking zoom sensitivity and speeds to improve the user experience across all devices.

Clearly it's a complicated matter, especially given the increasing use of trackpads and multitouch interfaces, too. Google's 2010 update screened out an issue with horizontal scrolling, which the Magic Mouse reports but ordinary scroll-wheel mice don't, but nevertheless I'm at the point where I'd like to be able to switch off the scroll-to-zoom feature on Google Maps.

Not everybody has the problem, for whatever reasons of hardware, software, ergonomics, and usage. But I'm certainly not alone.

When I started discussing this with a friend, I asked if he had a Mac and a Magic Mouse, to which he said yes, then asked if he used Google Maps, to which he exclaimed, "It explodes! You just barely touch the thing and goes nuts."

And related problems go back a long time.

"Don't even try using the scrolling option with a Magic Mouse. It's nearly impossible to move around a map with the Magic Mouse's scroll sensitivity," one person complained to the Google Maps forum in 2010. "Maps is nearly unusable with the vertical scroll causing a zoom. I just roll my finger slightly on the Magic Mouse and the map goes crazy," added another sufferer.

The problem seems worse if I lift my finger off the mouse when I release the click. And for whatever reason, the Google Maps zoom problem doesn't seem bad in Safari (though the Bing Maps problem is), and it seems worse in Lightroom and Aperture.

Some variation is to be expected from place to place. Even though browsers don't tell Google's server what type of mouse is attached, just knowing the browser could help with persnickety timing matters. And third-party apps use an externally available interface to Google Maps; perhaps Google's own site is a step ahead as the company tests new features.

I wonder how often Google tweaks Google Maps. In the week I've been paying close attention to this issue, it seems to have improved in the developer version of Google Chrome, which is what I'm using much of the time these days. But I've also been having some trouble with Magic Mouse scrolling on other Web pages, where the page seems to just scroll down for awhile and then no amount of finger-sliding will do anything.

A partial fix
Thus, I was pleased instead to find a Chrome extension that at least for me seems to fix the problem when using Google Maps Web site. ScrollMaps, also available for Safari, has a "detect finger lift" option.

ScrollMaps is a Chrome and Safari extension whose "detect finger lift" option cleaned up some of my Google Maps problems.
ScrollMaps is a Chrome and Safari extension whose "detect finger lift" option cleaned up some of my Google Maps problems. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Unfortunately, though, that doesn't help with Lightroom, Aperture, or third-party Web sites that embed Google Maps.

Macs are widely used at Google, as is the Google Maps service. So, while I fear there are limits to what can be done given the mouse's design and responsiveness, I hope at least that some improvements will arrive.

If nothing else, maybe Google should try to hire ScrollMaps developer Maurice Lam as soon as possible and build his code into Chrome. He seems to have ideas about how to lick the problem.

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