Machines that count: the mouse

Computer historian John Pratt, curator of the Machines that Count exhibit at the Auckland Museum of Transport and Technology, looks at the history of the mouse

You can say what you like about Microsoft’s software, but the one thing that Microsoft has excelled at is developing the humble mouse.

Microsoft didn’t invent the mouse — and neither did Apple, or even Xerox. A researcher named Douglas Englebart developed the prototype as a part of his DARPA-funded research into the man-machine interface. He first demonstrated his prototype mouse, and a crude GUI, in 1968.

Englebart’s work continued at XEROX Palo Alto Research Centre, and culminated in the Xerox Alto and Star systems that were demonstrated to Apple executives in November 1979.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Apple entrusted the development of the mouse itself to Dean Kelley of Hovey-Kelley design, now IDEA. What Jobs wanted seemed to be impossible. The Xerox mouse was reportedly costing US$400 apiece, and Jobs wanted a mouse for less than US$40. The simplicity of the mechanism that emerged is legendary — a roller ball in touch with slotted disks and photo-electric sensors. The precision of the whole device was in the “rib cage” created to manage the precise alignment of the moving parts within the case.

Even as Apple debuted its mechanical mouse in 1981, Xerox had started to market an optical one, with only buttons for moving parts. Optical mice were still prodigiously expensive, but as the technology matured people were willing to pay to give up on the troublesome rubberised ball. Sun standardised on optical mice in 1998.

Having said all that, Apple has curiously never distinguished itself with a mouse. The company’s first mouse looks like a miniature butter container, and then there was the “pebble” series, that looked better, but which didn’t offer much in the way of an improved feel. Even Steve Jobs admitted that the “hockey puck” they introduced with the iMac was perhaps the worst mouse ever. The current generation are functional, but ergonomically and aesthetically nondescript.

Microsoft’s first mouse was also designed by Hovey-Kelley, and perhaps not surprisingly it didn’t look unlike the original Apple mouse when it debuted with Word for the PC in 1982. The company’s second version, often nicknamed “the Dove bar” for its similarity to Dove soap, was better looking but hardly a revelation in terms of its feel.

Today, celebrating 25 years of making hardware, Microsoft owns the mouse. The current range of mice are hardly even mice any more.

First off, they’ve lost their tails and are now often cordless. Many of them contain on-board storage as well as some sophisticated electronics. While there are still two principal buttons, they can also contain a scroll wheel, and many more buttons.

On hand in New Zealand for the 25th anniversary celebrations last month were the design mock-ups used by Microsoft’s designers. Microsoft spends millions getting a mouse into your hands, and it’s not all spent on marketing. These mock-ups reflect a lot of genuine research into the anatomy of the human hand, trying to achieve an aesthetically pleasing mouse that’s as intuitive as a mouse can be to use.

While I had to confess to the Microsofties that I have just one mouse, preferring a track-pad or graphic pen, I have to admit a grudging respect for the latest generation of mice. The new “natural” mouse falls nicely to hand, with everything in a more or less intuitive location, and it’s big enough to actually keep my hand off the deck.

Then there’s the Sidewinder, practically in a class of its own. It’s possibly even more comfortable to use than the Natural mouse, and has programmable buttons making it better adapted to the requirements of hard-core gamers.

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