Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 2/8/2005The computer mouse has evolved dramatically since its invention by Douglas Englebart in 1970. The original one had two metal wheels – nowadays, you can find them with balls, lights, fingerprint readers, lasers, heaters, haptic feedback, fans and radios.

Tuesday 2/8/2005

The computer mouse has evolved dramatically since its invention by Douglas Englebart in 1970. The original one had two metal wheels – nowadays, you can find them with balls, lights, fingerprint readers, lasers, heaters, haptic feedback, fans and radios. Except at Apple, where until now you had the choice of any number of buttons you like as long as it's one.

The original Macintosh mouse had one button for philosophical reasons. Keen to encourage software writers to make full use of the computer's novel interface, Jobs insisted the Mac lack a number of features that even back in the early 80s were standard everywhere else. There were no cursor or function keys, so programs were forced to use the mouse and menus, and no standard sockets on the back. If it wasn't Mac-specific, it wasn't given the time of day.

To some extent, this forcible re-education worked. But fundamentalism only gets you so far: when Microsoft responded with a two-button mouse it soon became clear that yes, this was a useful addition. (Cursor keys also made a rapid reappearance: it may be philosophically appealing to use a mouse for all editing movements but it's hellishly slow). Scroll wheels appeared a decade later, and are also good. Yet Apple was having none of it.

It’s still not quite sure. Its new Mighty Mouse – released today -- has all the functionality of a two-button scroll wheel mouse but disguises them all under an essentially featureless plastic shell with one little bobble in the middle. Frankly, it looks like an over-designed posh marital aid; even despite that similarity, it is thoroughly unappealing.

It's a shame. The original Mac had so many excellent design points – the case was made smoother around the mains switch at the back, so you could easily find it without looking but it was very hard to hit accidentally, while the integrated carrying handle had hidden ribs to increase finger grip. The tilt of the top of the case made the whole thing seem smaller while giving a strong visual cue about orientation; even the case colour was selected so that it wouldn’t change over many years of use.

While there has obviously been a lot of thought expended on the Mighty Mouse, it is hard to believe it has been spent on ergonomics. It is just a mouse, and no amount of hype from Apple – does the company really believe what it says? – will change that.

Now, where's our iPod phone?