As a home for rodents, the computer industry has to be the best. But it?s not only the people ? we have the mother of all computer rodents: the mouse. Of course there have been other mice, but they just come and go. The only other mouse to come close to our mouse?s fame is called Mickey, but he only has three fingers, is animated and had a creator called Uncle Walt.
The animated one first appeared in a film called Plane Crazy back in 1928, and first spoke a matter of months later in Steamboat Willie. But despite this headstart, Walt Disney has had only minor success compared with what Microsoft and Logitech are doing with their handheld offerings nearly 60 years later.
The two companies share the market ? obviously there are the Taiwanese suppliers and the specialist manufacturers, but the lion?s share of the mouse market (about 90 per cent according to them) is split between Microsoft and Logitech.
But the mouse hasn?t always been a ?must have? on PCs. It is only since Windows 3 went ballistic in 1990 that the mouse has played an important role. These days, according to Microsoft, 20 per cent of the mouse market comes from people upgrading their old units. Some figures suggest that users upgrade their mouse three times in the life of their PC. Look out Mickey!
Traditionally the mouse is seen as the creation of mad geniuses at Xerox? Palo Alto Research Centre. Legend has it that these people invented just about everything the computer industry is based on today ? except profit. And despite their ability to come up with lots of ever-so-clever designs (that with hindsight seem to have been in- vented elsewhere), their creations generally languished until another company ?grabbed the idea and made them work?.
Apparently it was Doug Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute who invented the mouse in 1963 and reportedly holds the original patent for the device. In fact, inventing the mouse isn?t the only achievement laid at Engelbart?s feet, he was also responsible for the concept and initial implementation of windows, hypertext and of collaborative computing. So, now you know where to send your fan mail.
All the same, it still took the ordinary geniuses at Microsoft and Apple to make the hand-friendly rodent the success it is today.
In the early days of Dos there was hardly a need for a mouse, but it was no great surprise that when Microsoft got its GUI more or less right, the mouse?s success was assured. Interestingly, on the other side of the desktop divide Apple had been using a mouse for years, but, even with Apple?s self-confessed ingenuity, it hadn?t developed its own mouse any further than the current, rather boring, one-button affair.
The first player to set out its stall in the PC mouse market was Mouse Systems back in 1982. Considering this was well before Windows, a year before Lotus 1-2-3 and the PC XT (the first PC with a hard disk, and a 10Mb one at that), it was a move that could be seen to fall anywhere between revolutionary innovation and mind-numbing stupidity.
Microsoft joined the fray in June 1983, releasing its first mouse, ironically, without a GUI for it to work with. Having got the mouse out the door, the company promptly went back to its long-term headache ? Windows ? that was eventually to run three years late. Apple could afford to sit back and look on with an air of smug satisfaction because it already had mice, but unfortunately they were all connected to Apple Lisas, so it couldn?t sell any.
That changed for Apple when it launched the Macintosh in 1984. Six years later, in 1990, we saw Microsoft dragging, screaming and scratching a viable version of Windows to market and the PC joined the GUI era.
Technically the mouse itself hasn?t changed much over the years. The technology ranges from optical to mechanical, stopping off in the middle for the most popular compromise: optical-mechanical.
The purely optical type contain LEDs that reflect light off a special mouse pad printed with a fine patchwork of horizontal and vertical lines. Receptors in the mouse sense the pattern from the mouse pad and use that information to measure the distance it travels. Because there are no moving parts in the sensing process, optical mice are the most reliable ? no fluff and nameless dirt clogging its insides. But despite this, they still need the special pad with the special pattern.
Mechanical mice generally use a rubber or rubber coated ball held in place inside the mouse by three rollers. Two main rollers sit at right angles to each other and the third helps keep the ball in place. As the user moves the mouse, the ball spins the main rollers; attached to the rollers are wheels with metal contacts. As the wheels spin, the contacts periodically touch tiny wire brushes inside the mouse, completing a circuit causing ?clicks?.
The clicks from the rollers sitting at right angles are counted, and the position of the cursor on the screen worked out. While this design is inexpensive, the downside is that it?s less accurate than other systems and prone to problems with dirt and dust getting in and clogging up the contacts.
So it is no surprise, then, that most of today?s mice use a combination of these two technologies. Optical-mechanical mice use the same ball and roller design as mechanical mice, except that the rollers are attached to slotted wheels. As they turn, the wheels alternately block and transmit light produced by a light emitting diode (LED), and these transitions are picked up by light sensitive sensors. These are built slightly out of phase with one another, so the direction of movement is determined by which sensor is the first to regain light contact.
Optical-mechanical mice can be used on any surface and, despite the moving parts still picking up dirt, they are far less prone to breakage and failure.
To prove that the people who develop the mouse are just like the rest of us, and do have a sense of humour, a touch of boffin wit has crept in: mouse movement is measured in ?mickeys?. It is reported that Bill Gates says it is named after Mickey Mouse ? conclusive proof that these guys know how to swing.
There are about 200 mickeys per inch of mouse movement at the mouse mat. The mouse polls the current mickey count and sends that on to the mouse driver, which passes it on to the software. In the old days, the standard mickey to pixel ratio (that is, the number of mickeys travelled compared to the number of pixels the cursor moved) was 1:1 on the horizontal X axis and 2:1 on the vertical axis. But since mouse drivers have got more sophisticated and the mouse?s resolution has increased, that has all gone by the board.
Now it is common for the mouse to have ballistic tracking. This describes how the driver translates movements of the mouse into motion of the pointer on the screen. Moving the mouse slowly, the cursor moves slowly, but as the mouse speed increases the cursor moves faster and faster (working on the principle that if you are moving the cursor slowly you are doing fiddly work, but if you are moving it quickly you are just shifting the cursor from one part of the screen to the other).
Just as in the keyboard market, Microsoft has made it OK to talk about ergonomics and the mouse, RSI and carpal tunnel syndrome have brought the issue of user comfort to the fore. Microsoft?s Mouse 2 was designed to support the user?s hand and take the strain off the wrist. It wasn?t long before other manufacturers followed suit. The penetration of the Microsoft Mouse 2 is helped by the fact that Microsoft OEM a cheaper (and lighter) version of its Mouse 2, although (in the absence of hard and fast figures) Logitech probably beats Microsoft in the OEM market.
A bit like the discovery of the wheel, the first person to flip a mouse over and stroke its underside started a whole new trend. The tracker ball is seen by many to be the answer to RSI. The technologies are just the same as the mouse, but the hand remains stationary, so less pressure is put on the wrist. It is also being sold to users that have limited desk space.
Logitech, presumably feeling that it wanted to develop something special too, developed a fuzzy logic tracker ball, where there is a pattern on the ball that the software reads. If the ball gets dirty or marked, the software allows for this and continues to move the cursor (stopping that irritating moment when you move the mouse and the cursor doesn?t move).
Tracker ball units are popular in notebooks, although they are on the wane and the newer technologies are taking pride of place in the market ? there is the pointing stick that resembles a pencil eraser tucked between the G and H keys on the keyboard, for example. But touchpads are the newest and most popular technology. You just slide your finger along a credit card sized, touch-sensitive tablet and the cursor moves on the screen.
Both Microsoft and Logitech have their own approach to the mouse market. When Logitech entered the market, faced with Microsoft?s near 100 per cent dominance, it was obvious that it had to come up with a better mousetrap. So it concentrated on giving the users more features, which meant focusing on the driver software and developing a three-button mouse.
Microsoft never bothered with the third button but, not being slow at spotting a chance, soon saw the advantages of building intelligent mouse software. And thus the driver became the battleground for fighting the mouse war.
Mouse Manager was Microsoft?s first stab at this, then just after it released Mouse 2, the company put out the Intellipoint Mouse software which had lots of new (to Microsoft) functions built into the standard mouse driver.
Logitech took up the challenge and topped most of Microsoft?s features. But despite its canny software, Logitech had, and still has, an innate disadvantage in the mouse business: it only supplies a mouse, whereas Microsoft has the opportunity to build its applications software around its mouse and vice versa.
Which brings us to Microsoft?s new mouse ? the Intellimouse. Microsoft went back to the drawing board and added an extra bit, only one bit mind, but an important bit all the same: a wheel. And, given the applications-based tie-ins that will follow, it is very likely that the wheel will change how we use the mouse.
The wheel sits between the left and right button and can be pressed to click just like an ordinary button. Depending on the application it?s working with, the Intellimouse performs any of three functions: scrolling, zooming and data-zooming; giving users the ability to play with their data without having to go to the function bar.
If you?re using, say, Internet Explorer, you turn the wheel a couple of clicks (the wheel is notched) and the picture scrolls down a few lines; same thing for moving around cells in a spreadsheet. You can use the wheel to scroll a few lines at a time or an entire page.
With Office 97, if you hold down the CTRL key and turn the wheel a notch, you can zoom in and out of a Word for Windows document. SHIFT and a wheel click in Internet Explorer will move you back to the previous page.
Click the wheel while inside Internet Explorer or Word and the cursor changes shape, and Autoscroll mode kicks in. So if you move the mouse down, the document begins scrolling. The further you move the cursor, the faster the document scrolls.
The ball (and wheel for that matter) now rests well and truly in Logitech?s court, and while comment on its response is sparse, there is a new range of products to be launched in October. And although no one at Logitech will comment on it, it is highly likely that this range will include some sort of response to MS? mouse wheel.
Despite the standard mouse being the biggest part of the pointing device industry, there is a healthy crowd of devices that are variations on a theme. The most popular of these is the wireless mouse. This is powered by a small battery in the mouse unit and has a receiver at the computer. It works up to about six feet.
The games market has thrown up a development of this idea ? the 3D mouse. This is a mouse that doesn?t have a ball but a gyroscope. It is held in the hand, and by sensing the movements of your hand, moves the cursor accordingly.
Built for games and other applications that don?t use the keyboard much, there are now even wireless versions for people giving presentations. These allow the user to use a computer to give a presentation that is, say, across the room and not have to bother with a traditional mouse or keyboard.
Despite the different types of mouse available, the manufacturers still believe that users aren?t upgrading enough (well, there?s a surprise) and taking advantage of the better technologies that are on the market. This summer Logitech will push an upgrade incentive scheme to both consumers and the channel. It recognises that a lot of people using ?below par? mice haven?t thought of upgrading. Of course the company is also aware that Microsoft is pushing a brand new mouse and is getting a lot of coverage out of it, and Logitech needs to grab some of those column inches back.
Either way, we are going to see a lot of movement in the mouse market this year. Let?s hope Pluto and Donald Duck stay away.
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