The death of the mouse?

'all wireless again...' photo (c) 2010, macreloaded.com - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

I’ve seen the future, and there are no mice in it.

Apple certainly have a history of setting the trends in popular computing. From the mass-market appeal of the Apple II, through to the revolution in mobile computing brought about with the iPhone & iPad; not forgetting, of course, the introduction of the mouse with the Macintosh in 1984…

Since then, the graphical user-interface (GUI) has become truly ubiquitous. Whether you favour Windows, Mac, Linux or a mobile device the GUI is the way we interface with our computers today. Even the hard-core geeks who often value the speed and power of the command-line interface, do so from within a terminal application within a GUI. No-one short of a masochist would choose anything else.

With the ubiquity of the GUI has come the near-ubiquity of the mouse. Laptop users will often make do without one (especially when on the move), and a few desktop users will choose the trackball ahead of the mouse. But the mouse has been the predominant interface device for the best part of 25-years.

But I think that’s about to change.

There are two trends driving this, I think.

The first is the fact that increasingly users are favouring using the GUI’s menus, toolbars, and context-sensitive pop-ups ahead of the more traditional keyboard shortcuts. This is inevitable really, since keyboard shortcuts are a throwback to the pre-GUI days (the days of DOS, and applications like Word Perfect 5.1 – the PC word-processor of choice, before Microsoft’s Word became the dominant force). There has been a gradual decline the prominence of keyboard shortcuts in user-interfaces, since the GUI was invented. This is true of both Windows and Apple’s operating systems. Whereas once a “power user” would expect to be able to do everything, without taking his or her hands off the keyboard; today’s applications generally have too many complex features to make this a reality.

This is a good thing. Anyone who actually used the old-school word-processor applications will remember the lengthy cheat sheets that they’d need to keep taped up nearby the screen to remind them of the keystroke sequences required to achieve all but the most routine actions. Today’s applications with context-sensitive menus, mean it’s easier than even to apply the correct formatting, or make the required changes: and to use them the user has to use their pointing device. More importantly, it makes the experience of using applications far less daunting for the vast majority of users who aren’t expert power users. And of course, since the advent of the web, and it’s inherently visual presentation, navigating hyperlinks makes no sense with a keyboard.

The second major change in technology is multitouch. Touch screens, and trackpads of the past were all single touch devices. With multitouch devices (now near universal in touch screens – but surprisingly not yet so for trackpads) the experience is changed from just being a way to drive a pointer on the screen – to having a fully fledged vocabulary of gestures to interact with the system (pinching to zoom, swiping, twisting, etc).

Mobile devices are very much at the forefront of driving this revolution. Once someone has used a tablet device, and seen how naturally you can interact with it, it becomes obvious to ask the question “why can’t all computers work like this?”

Apple seem to have asked exactly this question, since the introduction of iOS. With each new version of OS X, more gestures have been introduced. Apple’s laptop users (of whom there are many) can take full advantage of this, since the introduction of the multitouch trackpads on MacBooks a few years ago. But what about the desktop users?

Until fairly recently, they were left a little out in the cold. Although Apple’s innovative Magic Mouse was (is) a very clever piece of technology (combining, as it does, a multitouch sensor with the body of a mouse), it’s a bit limiting. It’s too small for many multi-fingered gestures, and because a mouse user typically keeps their mouse hand on the mouse for extended periods, it’s too easy to accidentally register an unintended gesture.

With the introduction of the Magic Trackpad last year – Apple effectively signed the death sentence for the mouse. Not that things changed overnight. It’s really only now with OS X 10.7 – Lion, and all of the additional gestures it introduced that the compelling case is made.

I’ve had a Magic Trackpad for less than a week now, and already I’m totally sold. There is so much control over the system using all of the gestural controls, that (for the first time ever) a user can do pretty much everything more conveniently, and more quickly, without touching the keyboard. Apple have created a user experience whereby rather than keeping your hands on the keyboard, you keep your hand on the trackpad.

So will the mouse put up a fight or will it go quietly? I think, given the natural propensity for most humans to fear change, and like what they know – it’ll be a good few years before the mouse goes anywhere; but I really believe that once users try a large, multitouch trackpad – they, like me, won’t want to go back.

It’ll also need rather more multitouch trackpads to become available (although the likes of Wacom have introduced an excellent product with their bamboo touch tablet – such products are still few and far between), and it’ll need Microsoft to introduce “Mac-like” multitouch gestures into the heart of Windows (although if the last few years are anything to judge by, where Apple lead, everyone else follows). This is something that I think is likely to accelerate over time, as the simplicity of mobile OS interfaces start to cross back onto the desktop. So I think we have hit a high-water mark for the mouse; and it’s days are now numbered.

Of course the multitouch trackpad isn’t the only device competing with the mouse. There’s also the question of cutting out the middle-man entirely – and using a touchscreen display. After all the tablet market is doing exactly that… The difference, I think is twofold though. Firstly I genuinely don’t think that (for most purposes) a 30″ touchscreen is very convenient. Dragging something from one side of the screen to the other would be just too much like hard work. On a 10″ iPad it’s fine; but something three times that size?

Then there’s the question of ergonomics. If I have to hold my arms out in front of me all day to interact with my touchscreen, then my arms are going to get tired… And, as an aside that’s why I doubt that the “Minority Report” style gestural interface will never catch on – it’s just too energetic! On the other hand, if I mount my display (as I might a tablet) horizontally flat on my desktop then I’m going to have to sit with a terrible posture – it’s bad enough using an iPad on your lap: sitting over a table display all day is bound to give you a stiff neck.

Whilst I can’t predict that someone won’t solve these problems, or come up with a new, as yet unthought of user interface device – I really do think that the mouse is heading the way of the light pen…