Pointing Devices

The mouse was invented in 1964 by Douglas Englebart, who at the time was working at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a think tank sponsored by Stanford University. The mouse was officially called an X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System.

Xerox later applied the mouse to its revolutionary Alto computer system in 1973. At the time, unfortunately, these systems were experimental and used purely for research. In 1979, several people from Apple—including Steve Jobs—were invited to see the Alto and the software that ran the system.

Steve Jobs was blown away by what he saw as the future of computing, which included the use of the mouse as a pointing device and the graphical user interface (GUI) it operated. Apple promptly incorporated these features into what was to become the Lisa computer and lured away 15–20 Xerox scientists to work on the Apple system.

Although Xerox released the Star 8010 computer that used this technology in 1981, it was expensive, poorly marketed, and perhaps way ahead of its time. Apple released the Lisa computer, its first system that used the mouse, in 1983.

It was not a runaway success, largely because of its $10,000 list price, but by then Jobs already had Apple working on the low-cost successor to the Lisa: the Macintosh. The Apple Macintosh was introduced in 1984. Although it was not an immediate hit, the Macintosh has grown in popularity since that time.

Many credit the Macintosh with inventing the mouse and GUI, but as you can see, this technology was actually borrowed from others, including SRI and Xerox. Certainly the Macintosh, and now Microsoft Windows and OS/2, have gone on to popularize this interface and bring it to the legion of Intel-based PC systems.

Although the mouse did not catch on quickly in the PC marketplace, today the GUIs for PC systems, such as Windows, practically demand the use of a mouse. Therefore, virtually every new system sold at retail comes with a mouse. And, because the mice packaged with retail systems are seldom high-quality or up-to-date designs, sooner or later most users are in the market for a better mouse or compatible pointing device.

Mice come in many shapes and sizes from many manufacturers. Some have taken the standard mouse design and turned it upside down, creating the trackball. In the trackball devices, you move the ball with your hand directly rather than moving the unit itself.

Trackballs were originally found on arcade video games, such as Missile Command, but have become popular with users who have limited desk space. In most cases, the dedicated trackballs have a much larger ball than would be found on a standard mouse.

Other than the orientation and perhaps the size of the ball, a trackball is identical to a mouse in design, basic function, and electrical interface. Like many recent mice, trackballs often come in ergonomic designs, and the more recent models even use the same optical tracking mechanisms used by the latest Microsoft and Logitech mice.

The largest manufacturers of mice are Microsoft and Logitech; these two companies provide designs that inspire the rest of the industry and each other and are popular OEM choices as well as retail brands. Even though mice can come in different varieties, their actual use and care differ very little. The standard mouse consists of several components:

  • A housing that you hold in your hand and move around on your desktop

  • A method of transmitting movement to the system: either ball/roller or optical sensors

  • Buttons (two or more, and often a wheel or toggle switch) for making selections

  • An interface for connecting the mouse to the system; conventional mice use a wire and connector, whereas wireless mice use a radio-frequency or infrared transceiver in both the mouse and a separate unit connected to the computer to interface the mouse to the computer

The housing, which is made of plastic, consists of very few moving parts. On top of the housing, where your fingers normally rest, are buttons. There might be any number of buttons, but in the PC world, two is the standard.

If your mouse has additional buttons or a wheel, specialized driver software provided by the mouse vendor is required for them to operate to their full potential. Although the latest versions of Windows support scrolling mice, other features supported by the vendor still require installing the vendor's own mouse driver software.