R.I.P. the computer mouse, 1972-2010

Largely overlooked in the overwhelming iPad hype is its biggest potential achievement. Apple's touch-screen quasi-PC may have finally struck a fatal blow to the long-standing king of input devices, the computer mouse.

Largely overlooked amid the overwhelming iPad hype is its biggest potential achievement. Apple's touch-screen quasi-PC may have finally struck a fatal blow to the long-standing king of input devices, the computer mouse.

Make no mistake about it, 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 (for argument's sake, let's agree to date its lifespan from the 1972 invention of the ball mouse, and its use as a consumer device from the 1981 Xerox Star). Replacing it is an array of touch input devices and icon-focused operating systems that are built (not always for the better) around expediency over flexibility.

Long before the iPad, touch-screen tablet PCs had been around for years, occasionally enjoying a brief surge in consumer interest, and then fading away again, as users discovered that touch navigation was not really ready for prime time. Apple's iPhone, and later the iPod Touch, changed all that, bringing actual one-to-one touch to the masses for the first time.

But on the PC side, this only made the sluggish, temperamental touch screens found on most tablets even more glaringly obvious; we frequently described these devices as having a rubber-band effect. You'd drag a finger across the screen to move an icon, and it would follow behind by half a beat, as if on the end of a rubber band. The takeway was that touch was workable on tiny handhelds, but not well-suited to larger laptop screens.

The mouse may be dying, but we'll still need separate keyboards for some time to come. Sarah Tew/CNET

The iPad's disruptive success in building a larger touch environment that has received almost universal praise puts the lie to that theory. It may not be as productivity friendly as your ThinkPad, but add a Bluetooth keyboard and Apple's iWork apps, and you've got a reasonable approximation of a laptop experience in many cases.

But even before the iPad, PCs that traded the mouse for a fingertip have been making significant strides. HP has led the way with its TouchSmart line of all-in-one desktops and convertible tablet laptops. Again, the experience wasn't entirely seamless, but each successive generation of these systems has seen further refinement of their specialized touch interfaces, which sit on top of Windows, hiding the mouse-driven desktop from view. Asus also did an decent job with the custom interface on the Eee PC T91, a touch-screen version of the popular Eee PC Netbook (despite that system's other flaws).

Though some recent and upcoming touch devices, such as the Archos 9 PC, fail by relying on a traditional Windows desktop, others, including the Lenovo U1 Hybrid, use an icon-driven touch interface that seem much more forward-looking than trying to cram Windows 7 onto a small device. HP's still-unnamed slate device also shows much promise, taking the iPad design and adding almost all the features the iPad is missing.

Multitouch touch pads served as a Trojan Horse for touch screens. Sarah Tew/CNET

To look at it another way, we've actually been training people to abandon the mouse for years. Laptops now outsell desktop PCs, especially in the consumer market, and the ubiquitous touch pads on these devices have been acclimating people to touch controls all the while. Apple again led the way by incorporating multitouch gestures into its oversized touch pads, and other PC makers soon followed. Now it's hard to find a laptop touch pad that doesn't support some kind of swiping, zooming, or flipping with two or more fingers.

What the iPad and similar systems do at their best is to translate that touch pad training directly to the screen, which may be why the iPad, iPhone, and other i-products have such a small learning curve. The laptop-to-iPad comparison may not be a one-to-one match, and we pointedly said that the iPad was not a fully workable replacement for a Netbook for on-the-go computing, but we also stand by our earlier prediction that icon-driven touch interfaces will continue to migrate into more-traditional laptops and Netbooks, rather than your Windows desktop shrinking down to fit hybrid-style devices.

In other words, it's less that people will be tapping away at the current versions of OSX or Win 7 with their fingertips, it's that the devices and apps themselves that don't need that style of desktop interface will be presented in a manner that uses different input methods, such as touch, instead of being mouse-driven.

There's no need to panic yet. We won't be tossing our Logitech and Gyration mice for some time to come. They're still required for PC gaming, careful Photoshop work, and recording music in ProTools--although you certainly may have your own laundry list of mouse-required tasks. We're just saying, like a New York Times obit for an aging celebrity, the obituary for the computer mouse has already been written and filed away, and it may not be that long before it gets to run.

Related:
> 10 things Netbooks can learn from the iPad
> Touch-screen tablets <i>not</i> called the iPad
> HP's iPad-killer slate PC
> Is the Apple iPad a Netbook-killer?
> iPad hype dissected on the Digital City video podcast

 

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