Pity the poor mouse. After decades of good service, it may be on its way out to pasture.
The mouse's colorful history dates back to 1951, when Doug Engelbart's soft-spoken voice started crying in the wind. Doug saw that computers could be interactive knowledge machines. So he looked for a better way for people to interact with them. It took until 1960 to talk NASA, the Air Force and other agencies into funding Stanford Research Institute in San Francisco.One of Engelbart's projects at SRI was to find the best device for pointing at something onscreen. He built a wooden rod with two metal wheels. As the wheels moved, resistors connected to them sent their vertical and horizontal positions (XY coordinates in math and computer jargon) to software that controlled a cursor's position onscreen. It was strictly mechanical, but it did essentially what it does today.
The device was shaped like a teardrop. A wire stuck out at the rear. Somebody said it looked like a mouse, so that's what they called it.
Engelbart pitted the mouse against a primitive light pen (which had to be held up to the screen) and a rudimentary trackball. The trackball is sort of a dead mouse; it lies upside-down with its roller exposed. You just rub its belly with the palm of your hand.
The mouse won Engelbart's most important test: When you moved it, it moved the onscreen cursor. When you stopped it, the cursor stayed put. Doug added a trigger-button to "select" any task the cursor rested on. In the late '60s he patented it. He's still collecting royalties.
Other ideas came out of SRI, among them the first hypertext, online help, multiple windows, cross-filing and cross-windowing. "But everyone thought we were way off the beat. We got shut down," says Doug.
In the early '70s, engineers at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center licensed Doug's mouse as a pointing device for its Alto computer system. Fewer than 100 Alto computers were sold, but they paved a path for mice to come. (Or is the plural of mouse mouses?) The mouse languished only until several bright Xeroxers left for Apple. They took along the idea of point and shoot. For America, which is fast becoming illiterate, it was a godsend. You can work an Apple without knowing how to read. Just move your hand and click.
In early Apple IIs, the mouse was optional. When Apple gave birth to Lisa, the first PC with a select-the-picture interface, a one-button mouse was standard. Lisa perished, but from her best features, Macintosh was born. Nobody can easily run a Mac program without a mouse! People who are well-coordinated think mousing is much easier than keyboarding. People who are all thumbs, like Judi, stayed quiet for a long time.
Meanwhile, in the IBM world, Microsoft was playing cat and . . . you guessed it. In 1983, engineers in Japan helped them build a mouse.
Theirs had Engelbart's two buttons.
The software that came with early mice not only controlled them but tried to train folks like Judi to follow their whims. Microsoft's training games included Piano, which wrote and played simple songs, and something called The Game of Life. Apple's were fairytale-like scenarios through winding streets and artless incidents.
Xerox, meanwhile, was creating a touchscreen alternative. Anyone who ever ate a greasy lunch at a Xerox workstation or stood in front of a dead exhibit at Disney's Epcot Center knows why touchscreens didn't catch on.
Mouses became de riguer in the Apple world, but not for IBMs until the desktop publishing revolution. Then, suddenly, every Tom, Dirk and Sadie wanted to turn out graphics on the office computer.
Keyboards weren't meant for drawing lines or painting pictures. Mice do it better. That helps explain why Microsoft sold its millionth mouse in 1988 and two-millionth in 1989! Several kinds of mice now exist: mechanical, optical, "optomechanical." Differences in performance are quite slight. More important now is how many buttons they have, one, two or three. Hard-core mouse fans insist that all mice with more than the official Macmouse button are gauche. But there are some programs written for three-button mice. They're awkward to use with even two-button devices.
Gadget-loving IBMers can get mouses with dozens of buttons. Even Mac owners can use the new cordless mouses that send infrared signals to a receiver wired to the computer.
Technologically, those are similar to remote controls on TVs and VCRs and, like them, only work if nothing obstructs the infrared beam. That means you have to clear more space on your desk than with the old-tech mouse-plus-cord! Some mouse substitutes are touch pads. They translate touch (by your finger or a stylus) into electronic signals. Apple is selling one as an option with the Mac Portable. Its maker, Interlink, hopes factories and science labs will buy it. We can foresee its use by non-sighted computer users.
Judi's favorite non-mouse was the trackball until she tried newcomer Felix. It could just be the mouse-killer its name suggests. Watch for our upcoming column reviewing specific brands of mouse and non-mouse alternatives.
By the way, Doug Engelbart is back at Stanford after long absence, picking up where he left off. "The revolution is just starting," he says. "The biggest shift will be toward people working together, using the computer as their tool."
The mouse? "They made it extremely easy to use, so anyone could work it. Unfortunately, that makes it too limiting," Engelbart says.