Next Tuesday, the computer mouse turns 40 and, like many of us who reach that totemic and solemn age, the unappreciated little fellow next to your keyboard will doubtless take the opportunity to reflect on some ups and downs, roads not taken, bridges burned and opportunities scorned. But he’ll also doubtless also raise a glass and say ‘Well, at least I’m still around’.
On 9 December, 1968, Hugo Montenegro’s theme from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly topped the US charts. Perhaps Doug Engelbart heard it as he drove towards a convention centre in San Francisco to give a presentation to show 1000 attendees the first demonstration of the mouse. Looking a little like a presenter of The Twilight Zone, he showed how a mouse could be used to control a cursor (but referred to by Engelbart and cohorts as a bug) to move around blocks of text. The mouse was patented but the patent terms ran out in 1987, according to Wikipedia, just a few years befoee it became an essential part of the personal computing world.
The mouse was popularised by the rise of the WIMP or GUI, first on the Xerox Star, later on Apple systems and subsequently on Windows PCs. A little like its traditional partner in crime the QWERTY keyboard, for much of its life people have talked about what will replace it, but trackballs, touchpads, digitisers, touchscreens and pens have largely been seen off and most of us still find the keyboard/mouse combination as the most effective way to operate a desk-based computer.
As computer designs have morphed it is quite remarkable that the mouse is still going strong and appearing in a wide and sometimes bizarre variety of wired and wireless, single and multi-button formats from ingenious companies like Logitech.
Gartner’s Steve Prentice contends that the mouse could be replaced by a new paradigm and certainly it is true that the success of the iPhone, the Wii and other products hint that the way we interact with computers is changing quickly towards a world of interpreted gestures. However, it would not be completely surprising if the mouse were to be still here in another four decades so long as having a quick, cheap efficient way of manipulating text and other screen objects is required. After all, as the greetings card industry never tires of telling us, life begins at 40.