A Lament for the Mouse: Our Greatest Device

One of the many purposes of the Dark Android Project is to help people create a secure, privacy-oriented device (concentrating on Android, mostly) that you can use anonymously. A disposable (if need be) device that you can get shit done on. An easily portable and DAPS-compatible productivity machine (particularly, say, if you wanted to use The Guardian Project’s “Storymaker” journalism and activism app, or if you just want to crank out encrypted emails, do some “shopping”, or write your latest opus).

As I like to concentrate on tablets for this–or devices with a touch-first interface, anyway–I think some people (myself included) find it difficult to consider doing a lot of productivity on such a device because they so heavily rely on touch. And I’m with you on that, I hate touch interfaces. With a passion. The touch interface may be the last great curse that Steve Jobs left upon us (even though touch interfaces for devices were invented in the 1980’s). And it goes well beyond touch-first interface mobile devices now. These days, laptops are getting in on the game, even all-in-one desktops are progressing more and more towards touch, and I think it’s annoying as Hell.

Personally, I find that there is truly nothing more efficient than a mouse and keyboard when it comes to wanting to actually do things on a machine. If you just want to consume digital goods, then obviously touch will do well for you (and maybe that’s one of the underlying marketing “conspiracies” behind all of this touch-first nonsense, companies just want you to consume, not create masterpieces, so you’ll leave that to them). But even in the realm of digital goods, touch-first falls flat when it comes to video games. Touch-first is possibly at its absolute worst when it comes to that, and even then classic game controllers often don’t compare to what you can do with a good solid mouse and keyboard solution. They are the ultimate interface devices–perhaps devices, overall–that humanity has ever devised.

I’ll admit the keyboard still seems to get some love, though. Consider the recent Microsoft Surface Pro copycat–the iPad Pro 2–which is absolutely touch-first, but now has a keyboard cover for when you really want to bang out some typing work. I think it’s a quiet admission by Apple that the touch keyboard just doesn’t meet people’s needs. And as is always the case, other companies already long knew this. Whether it’s for a tablet or even a smartphone, people want a keyboard now and then. In fact the best one, in my opinion, was created by Microsoft themselves. The Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard is an incredible compact and still very usable solution with mobile devices in mind.

So clearly, the keyboard is still recognized as being needed…but what about the mouse? It seems to have been put to the wayside. iOS, Android, and Windows 10 Mobile are all capable of recognizing a mouse–and will even give you nice little cursor on your screen when you connect one–but no one seems to want to market it and concentrate on it. Really it gets much worse as this has been a problem for decades with laptops. And while touchpads on laptops are quite a bit more versatile than touchscreens, they still often fail when it comes to raw ability to play and produce when interacting with a GUI. And hey, I get it, it can be a pain in the ass to have to pack “one more thing” in your go-bag, and a mouse can certainly be a clunky “one more thing” in what may normally be a very slim and sleek carrier. But I think we complain about that at the loss of our own ability to interact in a far superior fashion with our digital space.

SRI_Computer_MouseIt’s hard to believe that the mouse wasn’t a new idea when it finally hit consumers. It’s almost as old as–what we would largely consider–computers themselves. While the popular notion is that the mouse was invented by Xerox in 1973, and then more-popularized by them in 1981–some even look to the beginning of the now-successful Microsoft Hardware with their first product, the MS-DOS mouse of 1983–the history of the mouse starts with the trackball (the very basis of the mouse) by Ralph Benjamin in 1941. Benjamin designed it for use with military radar systems to help plot out points within a readout system. A whole book could be written about how it seems that it is always military application that forwards the development of technologies, but the reality of that is something I’ll save for another time. Suffice to say, the trackball was originally a military technology, and in fact it was considered such a powerful tool it was kept as a high-level military secret for decades!

Fast forward over 25 years, and you end up with what one would easily recognize as a precursor to the modern mouse. In 1968, Douglas Englebart and Bill English of the Stanford Research Institute (which Apple’s SIRI is named after, actually) put together a group of technologies that would seem not so unfamiliar today and showed them off to the world at the Fall Join Computer Conference that year. Video conferencing, motion controls, internet links, and the real winner–the mouse–were demoed in all their glory that day. See the demo for yourself:

It’s an amazing thing to watch, and incredible to consider that so much of what makes up modern computing took so long (nearly 30 years later) to really become such a major part of our lives.

Sadly, the mouse seems to be fading far more quickly than it stood in prominence, and I think we’re losing something because of that. Yes, the stylus has come to fore (consider even the Apple Pencil), but I think that performs a very different function to the mouse. And our fingers, as much as Steve Jobs would wish it to be different, simply don’t offer the precision that a good pointing device (with digital cursor) does. And certainly, motion controls can’t possibly get through the finer points of a bitmap or quickly get you to that part of a document where you want to make an edit. “Keyboard nipples” (you know what I’m talking about, fellow ThinkPad users) are an interesting idea, but even they can fall flat because they don’t have that freedom of motion that a mouse has. A mouse can go anywhere, and with modern laser and optical tracking technology (no trackball anymore), it can work on almost any surface. The mouse may be the most versatile piece of computer-related hardware ever devised. I dare say it’s the greatest device ever built.

Nothing matches the precision controls, the speed of interaction, the lack of carpal tunnel, the lack of “tech neck” (that’s a really problem, mobile users), the portability, the inability to lose it in the couch (you know what I’m saying, stylus users), and the downright sturdiness (I’ve dropped my mice a few times and they just keep on clicking, how’s your cracked touchscreen doing?) that the computer mouse provides. Nothing comes close. And as more and more productivity gets done on mobile, eventually I think people will realize again that this 75 year old technology–much like the steering wheel–is THE way to interact with their screens, mobile or otherwise.

It really is such a simple, powerful, intuitive tool, and it has endless customization! Consider how gamers actually put weights in their mice for greater feel and precision. Or the added scroll wheel that allows to scroll up and down documents and web pages, which wasn’t part of the original design, but was so simply added and adapted to that people can barely imagine a mouse without one. Or that you can actually put a touchpad at the tip of a mouse and use it for gestures when viewing photos (I recognize that as an area where touch interfaces make things a bit easier). Or “side buttons” that you can customize to go back and forth through pages, or be app shortcuts, or whatever you’d like to program them to do. And while gaming consoles have tried to make controllers handle FPS and RTS games better…everyone knows deep inside that the keyboard and mouse combination has the head and shoulders advantage. Even when using a mouse with a tablet, it’s amazing how much quicker one’s workflow can go and how quickly mobile operating systems intuitively adapt to the ultimate pointing device: the humble mouse.

In a world of the graphical user interface (GUI), the mouse has become as important an innovation as the keyboard. And we’re still using GUI’s, touch-first or not. So why stop using the mouse? I can’t think of any really good reason.

It’s true that many companies–Steve Jobs’ Apple (which is different from Tim Cook’s of today), Google X, and even Microsoft at times–have all spewed some rhetoric about getting to a “pose-UI” world. What they mean by that could be varied and is up to anyone’s guess, but I think the idea is that the technology just sits in the background and you don’t really interact with it in anyway, it just does for you what it think it knows you want it to do. And while that’s an interesting concept, at the end of the day I see it as a user having a lack of control. And I don’t think I’m the only one (think how Windows 8 flopped by not concentrating on the mouse’s original home, the desktop, with Windows 10 swooping in for the fix). And I think a mouse–like a real keyboard–is integral to having that control. Speaking for myself, I have no desire to give that level of control up, whether I’m working/playing on a PC, or on a mobile device.

I want to get stuff done (and have fun with a game or two), and nothing beats the mouse when it comes to my workflow (and “playflow”).

If you want my mouse Apple and Google..well…like Chuck Heston said, “You can pry it from my cold, dead hands!” So I’m not going to lament the mouse yet. And you don’t have to either.

Carpe lucem!