If we have a look at the history and evolution of PC components, one that's arguably changed most (and most drastically) over the many years in service is the one that we all use on a daily basis, one that's so essential to the concept of the PC that all know what it is. Yet this essential peripheral is being bluntly disregarded by most users nowadays, despite the fact that it's literally the key element to the use of the PC and that any graphical environment would be rendered useless without it. You've guessed it, we're talking about the mouse! This unusual electronic piece of equipment has gone a long way since its inception, over its introduction to the masses, to the widespread recognition it enjoys today; there have been radical changes, but also various sorts of cosmetic surgery, yet none of which managed to affect its operation and basis. Theoretically speaking, the mouse is a peripheral input device the basic function of which is to detect two-dimensional movement on a plane and converting it into an electrical signal used by the computer to define cursor movement on the display. This dry definition by itself shows that not much has changed in the mice world since the beginning; however, the evolution of mice is interspersed with battles against other sorts of input devices, concepts and technologies. Yet the mouse has proven to be a resistant little fellow, and we're pretty certain that it's going to stick to our desktops (in both meanings) for some time to come. This is why we've decided to have a look back at the fascinating history of mice, from the "ball" to the cutting-edge laser technology.
The first thing that surprises many is the fact that the mouse (or a prototype thereof) first surfaced long before any graphical interfaces came into existence, reaching all the way back into the fifties. The first trackball device that used hand movement to control the on-screen cursor was presented in 1953 by Tom Cranston, Fred Longstaff and Kenyon Taylor, all three officially employed in the British Royal Navy, or more specifically, involved in the strictly confidential military project DATAR. The very name of "trackball" comes from the fact that the device comprised an actual Canadian five-pin bowling ball, mounted onto the hardware shell which was able to track its movement and convert it into electrical signal. Perhaps blessingly, as part of a top-secret military project, this massive bulk never found its way to commercial use.
Yet in 1963, ten years later, entirely independently of the said military project, inventor Douglas Engelbart from the Stanford Research Institute came up with a similar input device that paved the way to our much-cherished PC peripheral of today. The casing of the first mouse was made of wood, with a big red backlit button, and the inside contained two large metal cogwheels at an angle of 90 degrees. The cogwheels' rotation was converted into impulses that ultimately controlled the on-screen cursor on the X and Y axis. It's unclear who first thought of calling the device a "mouse", but it's very clear why - the size of the device and the cable connecting it to the computer are very reminiscent of the aforementioned pe(s)t. Against all odds, the name "mouse" has managed to stick to our day.
The first ball mouse
Although Engelbart has to be credited with inventing the commercial concept of a mouse, it was his colleague, Bill English, that pushed the project through, while introducing some of his own improvements in the process. As Xerox employees, English and his co-worker Jack Hawley redefined Engelbart's sketches in 1972, with some crucial changes, most importantly the introduction of a metal ball instead of the cogwheels, pushing against two detection rollers for the X and Y axis (we believe that this mechanism is familiar to anyone who's ever had to clean a ball mouse). Furthermore, the mouse no longer required an analogue-to-digital converter in order to communicate with the computer; signals were now transmitted in digital form to begin with. Although the project started off as very advanced and well-developed, it took Xerox an entire nine years to perfect the concept and make it viable for mass production. Therefore, 1981 saw the launch of the first commercial ball mouse, as part of their 8010 system with a graphical user interface, better-known by the name "Star". Named "Alto", the mouse in question had two buttons and the ball tracking technology, but with the cheapest Star system retailing for 75,000 USD, it's clear that the device still wasn't destined for widespread use.
Bear in mind that, although Alto is the first commercial ball mouse, it isn't the first on the whole. The German company Telefunken Rollkugel was actively using a roller ball mouse with a single button for vector drawing.
It was in the years following the presentation of Alto that Steve Jobs was looking for an innovative solution to serve as the input device for his new Apple system. It didn't take him long to realise that the mouse is just what he had needed. This is why he employed the Hovey-Kelley designing company to create an accessible and reliable device of the sort for mass production and use. The fruit of this cooperation was a commercially successful product sold alongside the Apple Lisa computer, with only one button, which became an integral part of Apple's philosophy for the next twenty-or-so years. A year later, in 1984, Apple internally presented a technically entirely redesigned peripheral device, one that they were to present with the new gamma of Macintosh computers.
The crazy eighties
The eighties saw a multitude of new and utmostly innovative solutions in the field of peripheral input devices. For instance, Richard Lyon came up with the first optical mouse in 1981, also as a Xerox employee, while Steve Kirsch took only a year more to present his own optical solution that functioned with a less complex pad, with a net pictured on top so that a mouse can trace movement more easily.
1981 is also notable for the founding of Logitech, the undisputed leader in peripheral production today. Their first mouse, called P4, designed in collaboration with the professor Jean-Danien Nicoud, saw the light of day in 1982. Two years later, in 1984, Logitech bestowed the first wireless mouse upon the world, using infrared (IR) technology. This also necessitated the use of a receiver, a solution met with increasing unease and protest on the market, so the sales figures ended up as unimpressive.
Jack Hawley founded the Mouse House company in 1983 and quickly afterwards presented the three-button model Hawley X063X, sold at a less-than-accessible price of 400 USD.
It was the same year that Microsoft came along with their own first mouse, the IBM PC Mouse, retailing at 195 USD and containing two buttons; it required a special card to be installed into the computer as well, but the mouse later got a compatibility update and the PS/2 connector.
The second half of the eighties is perhaps the most vital period for the later popularisation of mice, mostly due to IBM's PS/2 standard, intended for use specifically with input peripherals. In fact, the interface can still be found on most of today's motherboards, despite having been superseded by USB a long time ago.
The crazier nineties
The beginning of the nineties saw Logitech redefining their largely unsuccessful wireless technology and developing the first wireless solution that used radio waves to communicate with the PC. Cordless MouseMan surfaced on the market in 1991, and was a definitive step ahead for the company's development, although the price tag was still dire for most. In 1993, Honeywell launched a most interesting alternative solution to movement detection; their Opto-Mechanical mouse had two angled disks at the bottom doing the detection work instead of the usual ball. Unfortunately, they just didn't manage to make their product sell, and the concept failed to reach a wider audience.
The mouse design had been unchanged for quite a number of years leading up to the mid-nineties, with the only real variation being the number of buttons. Yet the unimpeded progress of the IT industry and particularly operating systems caused the need for faster movement through long documents and pages, thus giving birth to the famous scroll wheel. The first model to have such a thing was ProAgio, developed by Mouse Systems in 1995.
However, for whatever reasons, this device passed rather unnoticed. Yet in 1996, Microsoft presented their own scroll-wheel solution, called IntelliMouse Explorer, which is widely credited for being the first mouse to really bring the mouse concept to the masses and make it an integral part of the PC. The boom was evident to everyone involved, so other manufacturers quickly followed suit.
By the end of the nineties, most mice on the market were using the already somewhat obsolete PS/2 standard, but the coming and spread of the USB interface quickly made manufacturers aware of its advantages, therefore slowly re-adapting their gamma to the new technology. Apple was a pioneer on this occasion as well, coming out with a USB mouse as early as 1998, but a product that ultimately failed due to its round shape, which caused massive hand wear in the long term.
As the new millenium drew closer, in 1999, Agilent Technologies presented the first optical sensor that didn't require a special pad for efficient use, which was pounced on overnight by all other manufacturers, including the gigantic Apple, Microsoft, Logitech and others.
The new millenium
The beginning of our century made not only optical sensors more popular, but also all sorts of wireless technologies, with RF and later Bluetooth solutions coming out on a monthly basis.
Of course, there's also the bleeding-edge laser technology, which was actually available as early as 1998, after Sun Microsystems patented it and even presented it in actual products through their SPARCstation server and workstation line. Unfortunately, other manufacturers were too occupied with the advantages and development of the optical technology to pay particular attention to something as high-tech as lasers.
Yet Logitech came quickly to its senses and presented the first laser-based mouse six years later, in 2004, in cooperation with Agilent Technologies. The famous MX1000 managed to make laser technology instantly mainstream, thereby firing off a mini-revolution. Laser technology brought significant advancements in movement and detection precision, as well as the polling rate, which was quintessential for the up-and-coming gamer-grade mice. However, laser sensors still ended up as the more expensive solution, which meant that they were only to be installed in more expensive gaming mice. Optics still rule supreme in the budget segment, even today.
Gaming mice continued to evolve, though, not least in all the extra features that make them instantly recognisable, alongside the expected bump in sensor precision and resolution, all with the goal of making the final product as customisable to the gamer as possible.
Such features (some would say perversions) include changing the mouse's mass through the weight system, storing user settings on an internal memory chip, as well as changing the sensor resolution in-game with the click of a button. This has made gaming mice a market niche for itself.
Besides the optical and laser mice that dominate the mainstream market of today, other innovative solutions continue to spring up, such as the use of gyroscope technology for movement tracking. Logitech is at the forefront yet again, with their gyroscope-based Logitech Air mouse enabling cursor control without the use of any pad or surface whatsoever; the cursor is perfectly controllable by three-dimensional movement of the hand holding the mouse.
Trackpad surfaces have also been around for a while on portable PCs, so it was expected that some sort of hybrid solution would spring up sooner or later. And it did - some mice models now have touch-sensitive surfaces, which enables gesture movements to control scrolling and other forms of interaction. The most famous solution of the sort is definitely Apple's Magic Mouse, but Logitech is poised to strike it down with their Touch Mouse M600 too.
In the era of mobile devices and touch-sensitive displays, but also an increasing number of alternative technologies that make for a more natural interaction between the user and the machine (such as Kinect on the Xbox 360 console), one may ask how much longer the mouse can be expected to stick around. It's difficult to say. Some areas are likely to be condemned to the use of a mouse for a while, such as designing and engineering applications, but with touch-sensitive displays literally invading our everyday life, we can't give such an optimistic forecast for desktop use. Tablet, notebook and All-in-One devices with touchscreens have already uprooted many traditional ways, while the new motion-capture technology, increasingly present on gaming consoles, proves to be another challenge. Therefore, although the mouse may be far from extinct, we can expect its market presence to decline to a certain extent over the coming years.