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

“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