Monday, December 1, 2008

As the humble computer mouse turns 40, is it finally heading for the exit door?

It rose from humble beginnings to become an essential piece of computer hardware.

But as the computer mouse turns 40, there are signs that it could finally be heading for the big electronic scrapheap in the sky.

When Doug Engelbart's team at the Stanford Research Institute designed a computer controller encased in a carved-out wooden block, with wheels mounted on the underbelly, one researcher nicknamed it a 'mouse'.

But the name was never meant to stick.

'We thought that when it had escaped out to the world it would have a more dignified name,' Engelbart recalled later. 'But it didn't.'

Its birthday will be celebrated next week when Engelbart, now 83, returns to Stanford.

The invention was first shown to the world when he gave a presentation of a working network computer system in San Francisco on December 9, 1968, which is still revered as 'the dawn of interactive computing'.

According to The Observer newspaper, Engelbart first started making notes for the mouse in 1961, after deciding that he could do better than the standard gadget, a light pen which had been used on radar systems during the Second World War. 'We had a big heavy tracking ball - it was like a cannonball,' he said.

'We had several gadgets that ended up with pivots you could move around. We had a light panel you had to hold up right next to the screen so the computer could see it. And a joystick that you wiggle around to try to steer things.'

One of Engelbart's collaborators, Bill English, built an 'x-y positioning device' made from a wooden shell with wheels and a connecting cord, or 'tail', at the back. The cord got in the way when it was used, however, and so it was moved to the front.

'We set up our experiments and the mouse won in every category, even though it had never been used before,' Engelbart recalls on his website.

'It was faster, and with it people made fewer mistakes. Five or six of us were involved in these tests, but no one can remember who started calling it a mouse. I'm surprised the name stuck.'

The invention eventually took off when Apple paid $40,000 for the mouse patent for its Macintosh, in 1984, and it was eventually taken up by the mass PC market for use with Microsoft Windows.
By then Engelbart's patent had expired, meaning that he missed out on a potential fortune, although later mice used different mechanisms which could have been claimed not to infringe the original patent if the matter had ever gone to court.

The book Inventors and Inventions, published by Marshall Cavendish, tells how in 1989 Engelbart lost both his laboratory and his house - the latter burnt down while he and his family stood outside helpless.

But together with his daughter, he set up the Bootstrap Institute to promote his ideas, and in 1998 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Bill Clinton for 'creating the foundations of modern computing'.

Now the mouse faces a growing threat to its existence. Laptops which make no use of a mouse are an increasingly popular alternative to desktop computers for workers on the move, while Microsoft has invested millions of dollars in a coffee table-shaped 'Surface' computer which responds to natural hand gestures, touch and physical objects.

Steve Prentice, an analyst at technology research firm Gartner, told The Observer: 'I very much doubt that we'll be using the mouse in 40 years' time.

'They will be still be around in four or five years, but will they be the standard we see today? We're starting to see more complex and intuitive controls develop and the mouse will be left behind.'
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