Tech Smart: The rise and fall of the computer mouse

April 18, 2012
Noah Levine
Issue 4

I come here not to mourn the computer mouse ahead of its passing, but to celebrate it’s wondrous life and accomplishments, because surely we are nearing the end of the usefulness of this once ubiquitous device.

I come here not to mourn the computer mouse ahead of its passing, but to celebrate it’s wondrous life and accomplishments, because surely we are nearing the end of the usefulness of this once ubiquitous device.

I can recall the first time I interacted with a mouse. It was the early ’80s and a friend’s family had a brand new Apple MacIntosh set up on their kitchen table and I got a chance to point and click rather than typing in commands.

Like most firsts, it was an awkward experience. The mouse was boxy, the single button rigid and even the cord was a bit stiff. But it was a whole new way to interact with a computer and that alone was amazing. With a cursor-driven interface directories became folders, and finding them was easier to understand. It was still a step away from a fully intuitive computer control concept, but using a tool to drive an icon and then to select the item you went to enter with the push of a button was far easier to explain than trying to teach someone the command language involved in running a command line based computer.

The march of technology

While computers from Apple remained on the fringe during the 1980s, the mouse and the graphic interfaces it permitted certainly took off. Microsoft’s Windows operating system was built with mouse control in mind and it wasn’t long before every desk with a computer had a mouse off to one side.

Using the mouse became second nature to most, despite some limitations. I can certainly remember the issues of running out of both mouse cable or room on the desk. When dragging an item all the way across the screen it was quite common to get it halfway, then pick up the mouse, take it back to the other side of its available territory and drag that item back the other way.

With early mice, the trackball on the bottom caught its share of dust and required cleaning every so often. They also required smooth flat surfaces and spawned the mousepad, which provided an ideal mousing surface and a convenient opportunity for corporate branding.

Like all creatures, the computer mouse evolved over time. Versions with multiple buttons were among the first useful innovations, creating the nuanced computer commands available through right and left clicking. Scroll wheels were another innovation that became common on many mice, again allowing enhanced control of the computer without having to remove the hand from the mouse.

Technology improvements also made the experience of using a mouse better. The problem of dust in the trackball sensor was eliminated in two ways. First the mutant trackball control was a mouse flipped upside down. I never liked using this mouse format, but many people did. I assume those were the people who were naturally skilled at video games such as Centipede and Crystal Castles. Of course the biggest technological advancements were the wireless mouse that cut the cord, and optical and laser mouse designs that eliminated any moving parts beyond the buttons and scroll wheel.

Endangered species

Controlling a computer with a mouse was a shared experience of the growing computer culture. Point and click became a common term, and the mouse a key component to the computing experience.

The USB connected wireless mouse kept these control devices vital as the era of laptop computers was dawning, it was the development of laptop controls that started the mouse down its current path toward insignificance. Early laptops did their best to emulate mouse function with joystick-like controls embedded in the keyboard. I never got the hang of using those nubs and was far happier when trackpads started taking their place.

At first they were clunky, unreliable and simply less convenient to use than a mouse, but trackpads eventually grew in size, became more sensitive to touch and quite simply got better and better. Plugging an internal mouse into a laptop became far less necessary when the trackpad offered a more intuitive control experience in a simpler design. These days many laptop trackpads allow users to click anywhere, eliminating the buttons from any part of the control scheme.

While the computer mouse was once a part of the laptop experience, it’s no longer a key component. Instead the tide is moving in the other direction as the trackpad is making its way into the desktop space. First the mouse absorbed some of the trackpad’s best features, but now it’s actually ceding some space on the top of the desk to actual trackpads.

Many PCs can now be purchased with an optional multi-touch control surface instead of a mouse, and while these trackpads might be taking over a bit of the mouse’s territory, the real threat comes from the smartphone and tablet spaces. Nothing is doing more to end the useful lifespan of the computer mouse than the prevalence of touchscreen technology.

Recent stats show more than half of American cellphones are now smartphones. People who never felt comfortable sitting in front of a computer are embracing this computing format, and touching the icons to interact with content is so intuitive it makes learning to use a computer easier than ever before. Touchscreens have really only been widely used in this format for four or five years, but already their influence is changing the way desktop computer software is being designed.

Those changes are not great news for the computer mouse’s future prospects. One of the things Apple has been very good at is pushing older computing technologies out of the way. The company’s frontal assault on Flash was news when the iPhone first launched, and the company has made no secret about working to eliminate optical drives. It has also been pushing against the computer mouse.

Sure, the Magic Mouse is a touch enabled mouse, but the company also offers a trackpad option for all it’s desktop systems and is bringing elements from its mobile iOS operating system into its OS X desktop system. It makes sense as computer users certainly benefit from a shared command experience whether using a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop or a desktop. As more people get used to touchscreen controls on their smaller devices, it makes sense for bigger machines to adopt similar command schemes.

But while Apple is keeping its mobile and desktop systems separated to some degree thus far, Microsoft is eying a real jump into the tablet space with the forthcoming Windows 8. A completely new approach which also borrows some design aspects from the company’s smartphone OS, Windows 8 is being designed to run on both desktop systems and touchscreen devices. This means the way people will drive a Windows 8 computer needs to be largely the same as the way they’ll drive a Windows 8 tablet. Touch is the best way to make that happen, and while touchscreen on a desktop or a laptop is not the ideal way to go, touchpad like surface controls or even no touch, gesture controls such as with the company’s Xbox Kinect are a perfect, cross-platform solution.

Imminent but not immediate

Now the mouse isn’t disappearing overnight, and the rabid community of PC gamers is likely to keep a niche of gaming mice around for a long time, but it will soon be a completely unnecessary component. Computers will be controlled by voice, gesture and touch, with point and click taking on a far more literal meaning.

The next generation raised in a world of voice, touch and gesture will certainly miss the joke from Star Trek IV when a time travelling Scotty picked up and spoke into the mouse after the computer didn’t respond to his initial voice commands. Instead this will be just one more sci-fi joke rendered moot by the realization of the technologies it predicted.

The computer mouse has led an unheralded but essential life, and it deserves a bit of recognition for its years of service. But like many technologies, it is now entering its Autumn years as the things that will replace it come into focus. The mouse won’t be disappearing on its own. Other staples of the PC era will soon join it on the sidelines as more powerful smartphones and advancing cloud computing will combine to make the desktop less necessary. But before the desktop completely fades, the mouse will disappear with all its charms and quirks.