After 40 years of service, is the modest mouse about to be put back in its box?

11 Dec 2008

Could the humble computer mouse soon be eclipsed by touch technology?

On the 9 December 1968, a little mouse was given a big debut. At the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in California, Douglas Engelbart publicly revealed his newly designed computing system that had the lofty ambition to ‘augment human intellect’. The modest mouse was merely a small component of the new system, but it was the one that had the most impact.

The first computing mouse had been around for five years by the time it was introduced to the world, having been invented by Engelbart in 1963. He was trying to come up with an easier way to move the cursor on screen and, having tried light pens and joysticks, developed the idea of a rotating device.

The first mouse was put together by Engelbart’s colleague, Bill English, and looked remarkably like a wooden box with a wheel. The connecting cord looked like a tail, leading researchers at SRI to nickname it ‘mouse’. They intended to come up with a more sophisticated term at a later stage, but the name stuck.

While the mouse continued to evolve during the Seventies, becoming more like the mechanical ball device of today, its commercial potential went unexploited until it became part of Apple’s Macintosh home computer in 1984.

The same year, Logitech secured a deal with Hewlett-Packard (HP) that saw 25,000 mice per year produced for use with HP PCs. It was at this point that the mouse really took off, and its future was cemented by becoming a part of the Microsoft Windows platform.

In 2009, the mouse comes in many different forms, from rollerball to optical to laser to cordless. It has become an important element of computing today, and its popularity can be confirmed by the fact that, last month, Logitech produced its one billionth mouse.

While the world’s first mouse was a Californian, Logitech’s billionth was a Corkonian, having been developed by the firm’s team of mechanical engineers in Ballincollig (with the exterior designed in Bray).

“The billionth mouse, while being a Logitech success story, is an Irish success story as well,” says Fergal O’Brien, Irish account manager, Logitech.

On the 40th anniversary of its debut, many doomsayers are forecasting the death of the mouse. They point to gaming systems such as the Nintendo Wii, which have developed interaction with on-screen displays without the use of a mouse. Another competitor is more futuristic.

Science-fiction fans may recall Tom Cruise using special gloves to manipulate movements on a computer screen in Minority Report. Those gloves are no longer the stuff of movie magic, they’ve been developed by Oblong Industries in California using a technology called ‘gspeak’, which its creators believe will “fundamentally change the way people use machines at work, in the living room, in conference rooms, in vehicles.” Unsurprisingly, John Underkoffler, a scientific adviser on Minority Report, is a founder of Oblong.

However, the main threat to the mouse comes in the form of touch technology. From touch pads on laptops to Apple’s  iPhone, touch is the new technology that has got everyone excited. One of the biggest developments in this area is led by Microsoft, which has created Surface, a table-like device with a 30-inch glass surface that operates via touch technology.

Sean Foley, head of the development and platform group at Microsoft Ireland, explains: “Everything is done by touch; you don’t need a mouse or a keyboard. It’s direct interaction, so you can grab information with your hands.

“You have multi-touch, which is the ability to recognise many points of contact at the same time, not just one finger like you’d get with a mouse.

“The other thing is that multiple people can use Surface at the same time, so it’s not just a single-use device like a lot of touchscreen computers. People can collaborate together when they’re working on it.”

To demonstrate its belief in Surface, Microsoft is building multi-touch technology into its next version of Windows.

Foley believes this will be particularly helpful for those who are not used to computers. “It’s very intuitive. The point is that anyone can interact with it, and it makes sense, whereas if you present someone with a keyboard and mouse, they might struggle a bit more.”

So does touchscreen technology signal the end of clicking as we know it?

Not so, according to O’Brien: “If you’re in your office and you’ve a touchscreen a foot away from you, and you have to touch that screen over a thousand times a day, I think that’ll pour cold water over the idea of the mouse being dead. We don’t see the mouse going anywhere because it’s so practical, and it’s always evolving and getting better.”

By Deirdre Nolan

Pictured: of mice and men: the various stages of the computer mouse down through the past 40 years. Could multi-touch technology like that demonstrated by Tom Cruise in Minority Report replace the computer mouse?