Happy birthday, mighty mouse!

Metamorphosis: (Clockwise from left) The Apple Macintosh one-button mouse from 1984, Logitech’s V550 cordless notebook laser mouse and Microsoft’s ‘Sidewinder’ mouse for gamers.  

Anand Parthasarathy

The PC’s main control device will be 40 years old on Tuesday

Bangalore: The humble mouse, the device we use with the personal computer, to point at things on the screen, will be 40 years old on Tuesday.

On December 9, 1968, at a computer conference in San Francisco, scientist Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute demonstrated a small rectangular wooden device, with a single button which could control a computer. The tool had been developed by Dr. Engelbart, and his team as an “X-Y position indicator for a display system” to quote from his patent application. But the public preferred to call it a mouse, because, with its attached tail-like wire, it looked like one.

Briefly introduced in a computer system launched by Xerox in 1981, the mouse came into wide use only after Apple made it the main control tool for the iconic Macintosh desktop computer in 1984. Users of the rival IBM-type PC, fuelled by Microsoft’s Disk Operating System (MS-DOS), had to struggle with a keyboard to control all PC functions, for another year till the new the “Windows” operating system, provided for a mouse, in 1985.

These early mouse tools were electro-mechanical devices with rollers conveying the position to computer. They were soon fuelled by a more accurate optical tracker, using a light emitting diode or LED. In 2004, Logitech, the world’s largest mouse-maker, joined with Agilent Technologies (a HP spin-off) to create the first laser-driven mouse, replacing the LED with an infrared laser, to make it 20 times more accurate. Last week, Logitech announced that it had shipped its billionth mouse since beginning operations in 1985.

While laptops have always come with a built-in mouse pad or a tiny joystick, many users are so used to the feel of a mouse with their PCs, that they have forced the industry to create mouse versions for portable PCs as well: Logitech’s most recent laser mouse, the V550 Nano, is a wireless device for notebook users, with batteries which last 18 months. It comes with a clip-on feature so that it stays latched to the notebook when not in use.

Microsoft has launched a range of mouse pointers in recent weeks, including a hybrid that doubles for desktop-laptop use and a ‘Sidewinder’ with a number of extra buttons for hardcore games players.

Competing technologies

As it turns forty, the mouse may soon have to contend with other competing technologies: Increasingly PC displays are touch-sensitive. Why click a mouse when you can touch the screen and control its icons? Also waiting in the wings are a host of “gesture” technologies. You may soon be able to wave at your PC, make gestures to erase content, enlarge or reduce photos — or just clasp hands to shut the machine down.

When that day comes, it will be time to say, ‘Goodbye mighty mouse!’ Right now, a heartfelt ‘happy birthday’ will do.