Eek! A Mouse…

While it never gets much credit, the humble computer mouse was a powerful agent of technological disruption when Apple launched their original Macintosh 128 in 1984. That was the first personal computer to fully integrate this peripheral device with its operating system. Microsoft had only built it into Word at the time. IBM PC users used keyboards, and nothing more.

The funny thing is that the technology press pretty much hated the idea of the mouse when it launched. A reader recently sent us an article that had the following quotes from then-thought leaders:

“There is no evidence that people want to use these things.”
John Dvorak, San Francisco Examiner, February 1984

“There is no possibility that this device will feel more comfortable to the executive than the keyboard. Because of its ‘rollability’, the mouse has the aura of a gimmick.”
Computerworld, October 1983

“Mice are nice ideas, but of dubious value for business users.”
George Vinall, PC Week, April 1984

That got us to thinking: why did the mouse work, and what lessons does it have for today? Three points here:

#1. The reviewers weren’t exactly wrong. Business PC makers were slow to adopt the mouse. But Apple was not, and its focus on the educational and creative markets gave it access to users more open to the idea. And as students graduated and creatives moved into management, they took their mouse affinity with them.

#2. New form factors – notably the laptop – both provided alternatives to the mouse and delayed some adoption. Older readers will recall tiny joysticks in the center of their laptop keyboards. And until the mid 1990s, it was perfectly possible to run laptop software that didn’t even require the device. Of course now every laptop has a mouse-substituting touchpad.

#3. It is ferociously hard to predict consumer tech adoption rates. Take another case study – the Apple iPod – as an example. When Steve Jobs unveiled it in 2001, it was most certainly not met with fanboy raves. “Great. Just what the world needs. Another freaking MP3 player. Go Steve!” was a typical response from the online chat community. Integration with iTunes made the iPod a hit – the device itself was just a pretty version of something Dell already offered.

Bottom line: consumer technology is substantially more complex than back in 1984, so it is even harder to predict what sorts of innovations will catch on.