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Apple's horrible mouse legacy

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the computer mouse. Apple was one of the first computer manufacturers to incorporate a mouse with its PCs, but the history of Apple mice is not a happy one.

The first came with 1981's Xerox 8010 Star Information System. Indeed, Apple only pounced on the mouse after its famous visit to Xerox's PARC labs, where it also spotted the graphical user interface and thought "You know, that might just have a future...".

Before Xerox there was something that could never have been confused for a mouse - the world's first trackball (invented by the Canadian Navy in 1952) was built around a huge five-pin bowling ball made of plastic-coated maple.

Douglas Engelbart from the Stanford Research Institute invented the mouse in 1963. He founded Stanford's amazing Augmentation Research Center, which developed computer-interface elements such as bit-mapped screens, hypertext and precursors to the graphical user interface.

In 1968 he showed off a prototype wooden shell with two metal wheels during a San Francisco demo. He described it as an "X-Y position indicator for a display system". The ‘mouse' nickname for it stuck because it was a simple visual play, but the term ‘bug' for the on-screen cursor never caught on. Later, a company called Microsoft came along and developed a whole business plan based on bugs and software.

Doug's little mouse wasn't the only prototype being examined. Other experimental pointing-devices used different body movements. There was a joystick for the user to wiggle. And another was a head-mounted device attached to either the chin or the nose!

The first ball mouse worked with the Xerox Alto that was the basis of Apple's Lisa and Mac computers. So it's no surprise that Apple was the first to sell a consumer PC with the "X-Y position indicator for a display system" - or that the mouse moniker was preferred over the more technical description. The cute name has probably helped personalise the PC just as much as its intuitive use.

While Doug and Xerox should be lauded for the invention of the device, it was Apple that popularised the mouse, and should share some of the credit for its invention. We can thank Apple for functions such as double click, click-&-hold, click-&-drag, and drag-&-drop. Apple's early research suggested that users found a "one-button" solution the easiest to use, and stuck with this philosophy for over 20 years, despite just about everyone else sticking with Xerox's original multi-button approach.

Original Mac mouse 1984

The original Mac mouse used a rubber rather than a metal ball, but was otherwise pretty similar to the Lisa's. And it stuck to the boxy design until 1993. 1993's tear-drop rounded Apple Desktop Bus Mouse II was much more hand friendly, and was in use for another six years.

In 1998 Apple turned computer design on its head, then chopped the head off and stuck it in a coloured plastic see-through case with the launch of the iMac. Steve Jobs and his design guru Jonathan Ive couldn't just stick a boring old mouse with the astonishing iMac design, so they dreamed up an astonishing new mouse - which was astonishingly bad. This mouse was vermin.

Apple iMac Mouse

You could tell things were wrong when the revolutionary new mouse - officially the Apple USB Mouse (M4848) - was dubbed "the hockey puck". What was good about it? It was Apple's first USB input device. It looked different. It was colourful, appearing in Bondi blue, blueberry, grape, lime, strawberry, tangerine, and graphite. You could draw round it to make a circle.

What was wrong with it? Just about everything that a mouse was meant to do was made more difficult and less comfortable. Soon-to-be-claw-handed users had to draw up the hand in order to manoeuvre and click at the same time. Despite the immediate criticism, Apple carried on including this mouse with all Macs for the next two painful years.

It was this monstrosity that opened Mac users' eyes to the many Mac-compatible mice available from companies other than the myopic Apple. Suddenly we were boasting of having use of seven buttons and the amazing ease of a scroll wheel.

Wireless Mighty Mouse

Unfortunately the Mighty Mouse's little scroll ball, while considerably smaller than the 1950s Canadian bowling ball, is just as likely to get clogged up with dust, dirt and debris transferred from our not-always-squeaky-clean hands. It has the most annoying habit of freezing up, and is therefore surely the first Apple product that users actually have to spit at to get working again.

Thank goodness then that Apple is thinking ahead to a post-mouse future. Its innovative touchscreen interface - first seen on the iPhone and later on the iPod and MacBook - is clearly a way forward. Perhaps we'll use a more 3D solution, rather like Nintendo's Wii control or even the three-axis tilting accelerometer from Apple's iPhone. It's hard to picture a desktop computer without a mouse, but it's nice to know that somewhere in Apple's research labs someone is dreaming of it.

NEXT PAGE: the pill-shaped Pro Mouse

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