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R.I.P. Computer Mouse? Not So Fast

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“The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated!” quipped Mark Twain after a newspaper prematurely published his obituary. I think the same applies to CNET’s Dan Ackerman contending in R.I.P. The Computer Mouse, 1972-2010. Ackerman thinks that something being largely overlooked amidst the tsunami of iPad hype is what he deems its biggest potential “achievement” — that Apple’s touchscreen quasi-PC might have finally struck a fatal blow to the longstanding standard of computer input devices, the computer mouse.

“Make no mistake about it,” Dan says, “the era of the familiar PC mouse is coming to an end. It may not be a 2012-style apocalypse (and the mouse will surely hang on in some form for many years to come), but the door is slowly shutting on the universal acceptance of this single iconic piece of hardware that we have equated with personal computing for decades….”

I beg to differ.

Dan suggests that the mouse will be replaced by an array of touch input devices and icon-focused operating systems built (not always for the better, I congratulate him for acknowledging) around expediency over flexibility, noting that touchscreen tablet PCs have been around for years but never generated more than niche-level consumer interest until Apple’s iPhone, followed by the iPod touch, changed that, finally popularizing one-to-one touch among the masses. At least to a point.

Disruptive Success

Dan predicts “disruptive success” for the iPad in building a larger touch environment that has so far received almost universal praise, noting that while it may not be as productivity-friendly as your ThinkPad or MacBook (to say the least), he thinks adding a Bluetooth keyboard and Apple’s iWork apps will give you a reasonable approximation of a laptop experience.

I disagree. One of my biggest gripes about the iPad is its lack of support for the very device Dan Ackerman seems enthusiastic about shoveling dirt on the coffin of — the mouse. Even with an external keyboard, you still have to poke around on the too-easily-smeared-with-finger-grease touchscreen for pointing, clicking, and dragging, the body-English associated with which, even when the iPad is mounted on a stand or dock, can most charitably be described as awkward and non-intuitive, involving reaching past the keyboard at a clumsy angle.

Touchpads a Touchscreen Trojan Horse?

Ackerman, suggests that multitouch touchpads have served as a Trojan Horse for touchscreens for some years now, with laptops outselling desktop PCs and the portables’ ubiquitous touchpads acclimating people to touch control, Apple again leading the way, incorporating multitouch gestures into its oversized trackpads, observing that nowadays it’s hard to find a laptop touchpad that doesn’t support some kind of swiping, zooming, or flipping with two or more fingers.

Well, yes, but…I’m a dyed-in-the-wool laptop computer aficionado, and I own an aluminum unibody MacBook that supports Apple’s latest gesture-supporting multitouch trackpad technology, but guess what? I virtually never make use of it, with my MacBook spending most of its runtime mounted on a stand hooked up to an external keyboard, and not only one conventional mouse, but also a rollerbar, a foot mouse, and from time to time trackballs, freestanding touchpads, or a graphics tablet — all input modes that appeal to me a great deal more than pawing the display screen.

Even on my other laptops that I use in mobile mode, I almost always hook up an external mouse if I’m going to be using the machine for more than a few minutes at a time, and I always carry a mouse in my laptop case or backpack.

Touch Migrating Beyond Tablets and Smartphones

Ackerman concedes that the laptop-to-iPad comparison may not be a one-to-one match, and that the tablet device is not a fully workable replacement for even a netbook for on-the-go computing, but remains adamant that icon-driven touch interfaces will continue to migrate into more-traditional laptops and netbooks, with OS desktop interfaces increasingly presented in a manner supporting different input methods, such as touch, instead of being primarily mouse-driven.

That view is, regrettably, corroborated by a recent Gartner Group report that predicts more than 50 percent of PCs purchased for users under the age of 15 will have touchscreens by 2015. “What we’re going to see is the younger generation beginning to use touchscreen computers ahead of enterprises,” comments Leslie Fiering, Gartner research vice president. “By 2015, we expect more than 50 percent of PCs purchased for users under the age of 15 will have touchscreens, up from fewer than 2 percent in 2009.”

Schism Developing Between Touch Aficionados and Professional Traditionalists

However, Gartner also perceives a developing schism between younger consumer users and serious workers in the enterprise, projecting that fewer than 10 percent of PCs sold to enterprises for mainstream knowledge workers in 2015 will have touchscreens.

Gartner predicts the overwhelming majority of slate, tablet and touch-enabled convertible devices planned for 2010 will have a consumer focus, and that resistance to touch-enabled devices’ adoption by serious workers in the enterprise can be attributed to heavy requirements for typing and text input, the “muscle memory” of mouse users, and the potential problems of moving a user’s hands from the keyboard to the touchscreen creating particular adoption barriers for knowledge workers. It will be consumers and education users who will form the preponderance of earliest adopters for touch-enabled PCs and notebooks.

“As with many recent technology advances, touch adoption will be led by consumers and only gradually get accepted by the enterprise,” says Ms. Fiering. “What will be different here is the expected widespread adoption of touch by education, so that an entire generation will graduate within the next 10 to 15 years for whom touch input is totally natural.”

Even Dan Ackerman admits computer mice are not going to disappear overnight, despite the premature obituary in his column’s title, but he still contends that like New York Times obits for aging celebrities, the computer mouse has already been written and filed away, and it may not be that long before it gets to run. I suggest and hope it will be a good long time yet before that becomes necessary.

Image courtesy of Flickr user raneko

16 Responses to “R.I.P. Computer Mouse? Not So Fast”

  1. This is a great article. I fully agree with you Charles. Touch screens and tablets are great products– but there are innovations happening with computer mice every day, like using heated mice to keep your hands warm in cold environments, for example. You can’t do that with a touch screen!

  2. A well-written article presenting a viewpoint which is too rarely given in the touch-screen discussion. I am not quite twenty yet and have always been quite technologically up to speed, but touch controls (especially touch-screens) leave me stone cold. Yes, they are entertaining and certainly cool, and are valid in some areas, but are ergonomically a huge step backwards. A lot of honing will be needed to match the years the mouse has had to develop its practical and ergonomic sides.

    Until then, I will enjoy playing some cool and creative games on my iPod Touch or a borrowed iPad (for the short time before my hands cramp up, at least), while looking forward to being able to use a mouse and keyboard back on my desktop again!

  3. Brittany Maffett

    I still think the everyday laptop using college student still totes around a small wireless mouse over the convenient trackpad built in. The ease of the scroll wheel and quick movements won’t die out as quickly as some think, at least from what I see daily.

  4. Millions of people, probably like me, have a desk job and sit in front of a computer all day. No laptops. No mobiles. No wi-fi working in cafes. Just 8 hours behind a computer doing PowerPoint or similar. ‘Experts’ who proclaim the death of the mouse in favour of touch screen technology should just come here and do my job. For one, the screen has to be far enough away so I don’t go cross-eyed. Imagine using your arm to control everything onscreen. Your arms would drop off by lunchtime! I’ve tried once working from home on my PowerBook to do PowerPoint and I got nowhere.

    This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. 99% of the world’s PC and Mac users probably do more with their mouse than just piss about on the internet flicking through blogs, thank you very much!

  5. I can’t see the mouse “dieing” any time soon, but I can see touch capability becoming more common, especially on multi-screen setups. There are times when a dialog pops up or I want to move focus more quickly, a touch would be useful, but considering how far back on my desk my screens are, it wouldn’t always be that efficient.

    After all, the keyboard is a touch interface ;)

  6. recycledairplane

    I just bought a magic mouse after becoming deathly sick of burning my fingertips off on my trackpad (especially when the computer heats up)
    They better think of something phenomenal if they’re trying to out mice…

  7. For laptops and tablets, I get that “touch” will rule…

    But no way for desktops. I can do and go waaaayyyy faster with my mouse (and with less energy) than somebody else with touch. Mighty mouse is here to stay. End of story as far as I’m concerned. :-)

  8. How things change! I remember 18 years or so ago working in IT, all the DOS guys hated mice, would never use them, etc. Today, they’re all using them. I suspect that in 20 years the same will true of touch screens or voice control or whatever the next big thing is…

  9. adam jackson

    Well. There’s that argument that Apple Hates Buttons that’s been echoed more in the past few years as Apple removes more buttons from devices.

    Touch is certainly taking over.

    The mouse isn’t going away anytime soon. The Magic Mouse is a good example of that. It’s still a necessary way to navigate a 30″ display but buttons are going away.

    Apple is testing us though. touch-typing on the iPad, apple is most definitely logging our WPM and typing skills. They’re logging how many of us attach BT keyboards to the iPad and how many of us start writing about wishing our notebooks were touch all the way.

    Many users complain that when they connect a BT keyboard to the iPad, they still have to reach up to the screen to navigate or scroll around and it’s a bit cumbersome. A mouse would be much easier as the screen gets larger.

    The mouse is easier to get to (your elbows don’t have to leave the table) and anyone that’s used a Microsoft Surface can attest that it gets tiring using your hands to flip photos and play chess.

    Mouse will be here for a while. How we use it will evolve.

  10. I absolutely agree with you about touch screens being clumsy when paired with a keyboard. Owning a convertible tablet for 3 years, I find it quite uncomfortable to type on the keyboard then use my finger to navigate like a mouse.

  11. Brandon Tottle

    This is one amazing sentence: “Even with an external keyboard, you still have to poke around on the too-easily-smeared-with-finger-grease touchscreen for pointing, clicking, and dragging, the body-English associated with which, even when the iPad is mounted on a stand or dock, can most charitably be described as awkward and non-intuitive, involving reaching past the keyboard at a clumsy angle.”