After 30 Years, Computer Mouse Still Prevails

(Image credit: Dreamstime)

Since 1971, computer chips have literally become a million times more powerful, screens have gained the ability to show hundreds of thousands of new colors and the mouse -- well, the mouse has remained pretty much the same. Thirty years ago today, April 27, Xerox released the first commercially available computer system containing the mouse and windows interface that still dominates computing. And despite numerous claims that iPhone-like touch screens mean the end of the mouse, it seems like this system will remain with us well into the future.

Undoubtedly, recent changes in how we use computers have opened up alternative methods for interacting with computers, with Microsoft's Kinect and Apple's iPad pointing to a future where richer forms of interface enable new and interesting abilities. But thanks to a revolutionary and simple design, user familiarity and amazing versatility, even after three decades of use, reports of the death of the mouse are greatly exaggerated. [See infographic: Computer Interface Technologies Through the Ages]

"The mouse was revolutionary because it was aimed not at experts, but at novices, thereby widening the very idea of 'who uses a computer,'" said Ken Perlin, a professor at the New York University Media Research Lab. "Ease of learning, simplicity of use, inherently good ergonomics and the fact that you don't need to take your eyes off the screen to use it, are also the reasons for its long endurance."

The world the mouse created

One cannot understand the success and longevity of the computer mouse without putting it in the context of the computing revolution it enabled. Before the mouse, users interacted with their computers by feeding in abstract punch cards or linguistically confusing lines of code words. The mouse transformed the computer into a visual device, thereby moving computing into the visual, immediate, "what you see is what you get" world that humans feel comfortable with.

"[The mouse] was a key development in the creation of graphic user interfaces," said Donald Patterson, director of the Laboratory for Ubiquitous Computing and Interaction at the University of California, Irvine. "The mouse enabled long-term engagement with the screen, albeit indirectly, in a way that wasn't particularly expensive and wasn't prone to arm and hand fatigue."

For the first 15 years of its life, the tight bond between the computer mouse and the windows interface designed by Xerox and popularized by Apple and Microsoft ensured the mouse's dominance. Then, in the mid-'90s, when computers became powerful enough to support a replacement for the mouse, the Internet gave the humble pointer a new lease on life.

"[The Web] swiveled the tech-gaze and preoccupation of the entire planet in general, and of the field of CS in particular, a full 90 degrees, and in such a way that nearly everyone forgot that it was high time for a new user interface and a new input device," said John Underkoffler, chief scientist at the gesture interface company Oblong Industries and the science adviser to the "Iron Man" movies.

For the following decade, the mouse managed to fend off more high-tech rivals because the mouse fit the digital world so well, and because computer scientists began designing their products to fit the mouse.

Point and click with your pointer finger

As useful as the mouse is, it couldn't hold off competitors forever. Smartphones, tablets and digital automotive systems have taken computers to a place the mouse cannot follow. As the stationary computer loses its primacy in the world of computer, users have moved on to touch screens, voice activation and gesture control.

"The mouse was and is really suited, demonstrably generally optimal for most common things, for the desktop. It is in the other types of devices, tabletops, mobiles, whiteboards, that the mouse is generally poorly suited, and therefore rightly replaced," said Bill Buxton, the principal researcher at Microsoft Research. "But where it is suited — and that will continue to be an important space — it will continue to dominate. Just as cinema didn’t replace live theater or television cinema, touch screens, for example, are not going to replace the mouse in those cases."

Uses for the mouse have not ceased — just its day in the spotlight. In an age when new developments render even the most advanced devices obsolete in what seems like a matter of weeks, the mouse has managed to persist, largely unchanged, for 30 years. Despite its limitations, the longevity of the mouse earns respect even from the scientists who labor to design its replacements.

"People are starting to understand that a better interface can lead not to incremental improvements, but in fact to a qualitatively different and better and agency-laden experience of computation. People are, I believe, ready for that," Underkoffler told InnovationNewsDaily.

"In the meantime, we salute the mouse, and pay our respects to the input device that, along with its associated interface, has served us faithfully for 30 years."

Stuart Fox currently researches and develops physical and digital exhibit experiences at the Science Liberty Center. His news writing includes the likes of several Purch sites, including Live Science and Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries.