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February 04, 2010

Of Mice and Pads

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Is the mouse approaching retirement? I’m taking some literary license with the title of this post to borrow from the works of Robert Burns (i.e. a poem entitled "To a Mouse") to contrast a similar symbolism found in the poem itself... in our case the end of computer mice and the rise of "touch".  With their latest entry, Apple’s iPad along with many other touch enabled smart phones and touch screen computers are laying the ground work to retire the computer mouse to the realm of museums.

It is curious to note that analog technology is the first to "see" information... that is, humans and the world around us is analog in nature.  So when information is gathered, it is first in the form of analog signals.  It is also the last - LCDs convert digital pixels into light (using analog transistors on the glass) for us to see and perceive.  Audio is produced by amplifiers driving mechanical sound generators (e.g. speakers) to produce sound.  Seeing and hearing are native to humans and so is touch. 

A baby instinctively understands touching and being touched.  They first communicate via primitive exchanges of touch and learn to coordinate seeing and touching as they grow... it is as natural as breathing.  However, for the past 20 plus years or so, the computer "mouse" was a mechanical means to "point" and "click" on an object on a display.  It is not a natural motion to move a "mouse" which in turn moves a "cursor" that the user attempts to align with an object located on a display.  These are disjointed actions and often difficult to learn - but learn we must since it is a requirement of modern computer operating systems!  Imagine trying to use Windows or OS X without a mouse... I have... it isn’t pretty.

But through the work of people like Jeff Han and his company Perceptive Pixel, Apple Computer, Microsoft, and many others, the concept of touching a computer display is now well accepted.  I own an iPod Touch and the interface is so natural, I wish all computers worked this way.  But engineering touch into displays has been an uphill road with many barriers.  Resistive methods expose circuitry to electrostatic discharge, capacitive methods require more complex electronics, camera methods are not easy to implement on LCD displays, and the list goes on.  However, I will predict that in 5 to 10 years, like LCD backlights moving to LEDs, all displays, whether they are OLED, LCD or other technology, will be touch enabled.  They will be built that way by default.

Touch is emerging as one of the last great interfaces between humans and machines (spoken word is close behind).  With Windows 7 having native touch support and Apple’s iPad designed for touch it should be obvious that finally, the natural analog method for interfacing to a machine (point and touch, flick, drag, draw, etc) will soon be ubiquitous and machines without it will be considered "yesterday’s technology". 

I often think back to the days of alphanumeric only displays on computers.  Yes... I am that old.  You had 256 characters to use (some of which could be placed next to, above and below to form primitive graphics) and most of the information displayed was text... there were no (or extremely limited) graphics.  If the system was a work station, the graphics were formed by electron beam vectors on cathode ray storage tubes which "drew" the drawing while you watched... we’ve come so far.  However, that was not that long ago and today almost all computers have fantastic graphical capabilities! So mark your calendar... it’s only a matter of time before the mouse (like the poor mouse in Burns’ poem) is history. 

Till next time...

Author's note: iPad and iPod are trademarks of Apple Computer... incase you didn't know...


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Grant Smith

I don't think so. Something capable of emulating a mouse will always remain. I find them both ergonomic and intuitive. I can't imagine doing a PCB layout without one. Touch screen PCB layout? You must be kidding. How about squeezing that cursor in between two letters in some text to correct a word that your spellchecker thinks is something else. I'll put a wireless optical mouse up against any sort of touch screen any day for shear speed and precision. Touch screens are a viable answer for portable applications, but not for hardcore computing.

There is an interesting analogy in nature. As hard as we've tried to invent a better mouse trap, the furry little buggers are still all around us and will be for a long long time.


Touch screen interfaces are definitely more intuitive - my 2.5 year old knows how to work the iPhone, but he has no concept how a mouse works. Now that he can read numbers he quickly learned how to unlock the phone. Note: Always set your device's passcode with a toddler otherwise they may inadvertently set one for you!

Touch screens do have some drawbacks, though. For example, it took me a while to learn to not roll my fingers when typing on the iPhone's keyboard. It's just a matter of practice, but when I say I fat fingered something I mean it literally! I'm also old fashioned enough to admit I prefer a mouse for functions like drag and drop, selecting an area and right click menus. Plus touchscreens can't approach the precision of a mouse. If you try playing an FPS game it'll be an exercise in frustration with a touchscreen. You just can't make your finger as small as that gunsight reticle...

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