The idea that clicked: a history of the mouse

Life begins at 40, the world tells us. With all those decades of experience we should be healthier, wealthier and wiser than we were in, say, our twenties.

But for the humble PC mouse – a device that waved goodbye to its thirties last year – the old maxim might not hold true. Thanks to changes in how we use and communicate with computers, the mouse could be heading for retirement. Just look at Microsoft's investment in touch-based technologies.

Tomorrow we may point, not click. But is trying to move away from the mouse a good idea? After all, the mouse is a piece of design that just works, and using one to get around a computer feels as natural to most of us as holding a pen to write a letter. When it comes to ease and speed of use, the mouse is king.

Back in 1954, psychologist Paul Fitts did some research into how to measure precise motion and movement. That research later gave rise to Fitts' Law. In essence, Fitts' Law predicts the time required to move to a target area on screen, taking into account the distance travelled and the size of the target. A good analogy for understanding Fitts' Law is to think of it like a driving course.

The law measures not only the speed of motion (how fast the car goes from 0mph to 60mph), but also the accuracy with which a final destination is reached (how the car moves around traffic cones, hopefully leaving them intact).

Since its birth in 1968, the mouse has consistently scored higher in the Fitts' Law test than any other pointing device. Nearly every program in use today employs the mouse as a primary control mechanism. From child-friendly drawing apps to the most robust engineering suites, the humble mouse is the reigning king of input.

The cold wind of change

But not everybody is convinced. The nay-sayers include Stephen Prentice from Gartner Group – and he is calling for the rodent's head. "The mouse works fine in the desktop environment, but for home entertainment or working on a notebook it's over," Prentice told the BBC late last year.

His main point is that while the basic constructs of a PC have stayed the same for a generation, these paradigms are now shifting. The very definition of a computer is evolving: you could have a touch wall in your hallway that controls the lights, blinds and music systems in your house, or an all-in-one touch controlled PC such as the Asus Eee Top for use in family living spaces.

Even your car will have an in-dash computer eventually, and new models from HP – such as the TX2 TouchSmart notebook – support finger gestures like swiping to move through a slideshow and flicking to change volume control. It's true that the computer is changing, and companies like Logitech, Microsoft, Kensington and Razer may need to invent new mouse designs to keep pace.

The mouse that roared

Dr Douglas Engelbart invented the first mouse – a crude and imprecise device – while working as a psychologist at Ohio State University. Bill English, who also worked at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), named the device a mouse simply because it had a long tail.

In the 1970s, English invented the mouse ball, which was used in mice throughout the following two decades. In 1982, Logitech released its first mouse (the P4), while Microsoft released a similar 'ball mouse' the same year. These 'dark ages' of the mouse were fraught with problems: the roller ball would get jammed easily and corroded quickly, resulting in poor precision and frequent cleaning sessions.

In 1999, Microsoft changed all of that with the release of the first optical mouse, finally putting an end to the frustration of mouse cleaning. In 2003, Kensington released both an optical trackball mouse and then one of the first examples of wireless mice, which was another big step forward for the technology.

The most recent major development in the evolution of the mouse has been the change from an optical sensor – one that uses regular light – to a laser sensor. "The laser is similar to LED-based optical mice in that there's an optical sensor that takes pictures of the surface," says Erik Charlton, a product manager at Logitech. "Both types of mice use light and include cameras that interpret the light when it reflects from the surface. Laser, however, is able to capture greater detail of the surface because of its coherent nature, whereas LED light has a different wavelength that can't pick up as much detail. The result is that laser improves the tracking ability of the mouse by 20 times. Laser [mice] will work on surfaces on which LED-based optical mice tend to fail."