Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Mouse Is Dead

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You’re probably using a mouse today, but you may never buy one again. All the planets are aligning against this humble pointing device.

The computer mouse has long been associated with the PC, but in fact it was invented during the Kennedy administration (in 1963) by Silicon Valley engineers Douglas Engelbart and Bill English. (Click here to see Engelbart demonstrate his invention in San Francisco in late 1968.

The mouse was nothing but a lab rat until the Xerox Star shipped in 1981. Though it was the first time anyone could buy a mouse, few did. The Star was overpriced ($16,000) and poorly marketed. The IBM PC came out that year, too — without a mouse. But when the Apple Macintosh hit in January of 1984, the mouse went mainstream and has been with us ever since.

Now, Gartner analyst Steve Prentice says the mouse’s dominance as the leading pointing devices may be over within 2 to 4 years. And I tend to agree.

That’s quite a prediction. Habits die hard, and our mouse addiction won’t be easy to break. However, several recent developments are slowly changing — or threaten to change — our mouse habit.

1. Apple’s giant trackpad with multi-touch.

Available on MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops, this pointing device represents a body blow to the appeal of using a mouse with an Apple mobile computer. The new trackpad is superior because in addition to pointing and clicking, you get gestures, which adds a whole new layer of control.

2. Gaming pointing devices.

Remember when everyone used to play games on a PC using a mouse and keyboard? Neither do I. Console gaming has re-set the bar for gaming input devices, and now even PC games seem to call for joysticks, yolks, steering wheels and other non-mouse input devices.

3. “Brain-reading” devices.

Like the mouse between 1963 and 1981, these devices are still in the lab. But one company, Emotiv Systems, plans to place a $300 headset on the market by the end of this year that lets gamers control some aspects of games with thoughts alone (go here for the demo).

4. Apple iPhone and the “iPhone Killers.”

This newest category of cell phone boots physical keyboards and phone pointing devices (like BlackBerry’s “pearl,” toggle switches or the tracking sticks on some handsets) altogether in favor of full-size touch screens. Although people tend to see iPhone-like devices as replacing keyboards, they’re getting millions of people used to the idea of controlling an entire operating system with a touch screen.

These four factors, and others, will weaken our reliance on mice. But something else will deliver the knock-out blow: The next generations of Windows and Mac OS. Microsoft has already announced that Windows 7 will be optimized for Microsoft Surface-like touch interfaces. And I’m confident that Apple will take advantage of its many patents for “multi-touch” systems and ship an iPhone-like version of Mac OS within the next year or two.

These next-generation operating systems will sport what I call multitouch, physics and gestures (MPG) user interfaces. They represent the next quantum leap in PC usability. And they have no use for a mouse.

The evolution of user interfaces, in fact, can be viewed as a process of getting the user “closer” to objects on-screen. In the beginning, we interfaced with computers on the other side of the glass, handing punch-cards to an operator for processing. Then we typed abstract commands, but directly on a keyboard. Then we used a mouse to simulate the grabbing and selecting, the dragging and dropping of on-screen objects. In the coming fourth phase, we’ll reach out and touch documents, photos and folders directly using iPhone-like user interfaces.

In these four phases of human-computer interaction, the mouse was of use in only one of them. And that era is about to draw to a close.

So take the time to savor every point and every click. It won’t last. The mouse is as good as dead.

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