Eek!

For decades there was a religious war regarding what computer users should be doing with their hands when they weren’t typing. No, not that religious war (you cheeky monkey!), the one about the pointing device, which would allow a user to make gestures on the screen, and address parts of a graphic user interface. Before I even started using a computer, I imagined that I’d be using some sort of ‘light pen’ to do Music Notation on the screen, since I’d once seen someone using that kind of a device on a documentary (and wasn’t it used in the movie The Andromeda Strain)?  Then, when I was just returning to the US from school in England, a fellow student (who was Canadian) said I should look into using ‘A Moose’. No, I misheard his Toronto accent. He wasn’t talking about the Canadian animal, but the Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie of Robert Burns fame A Mouse. The original, first computer mouse, invented by Douglas Englebart in 1963 had this drawing in the patent:
Original Mouse Patent Engineering Drawing

The Original Mouse Patent Engineering Drawing

Though the drawing doesn’t show it, Englebart’s mouse, which was one small part of Engelbart’s a larger project, aimed at ‘augmenting human intellect’ had 1 button. The drawing mainly shows how the block uses multiple rollers, which sense which way the mouse is being moved in terms of X and Y coordinates.

When Apple shipped the first Lisa computer (and of course, the first Mac) , the commandment that ‘Thy mouse shall have but  1 button’ was spoken to the masses. On the other side, the X-Window System, and the IBM PC mouse had multiple buttons (2 or 3). The two to three camps dug in for years, each claiming the ergonomic, moral or practical high ground over the others. The antipathy between the 1 or many buttons groups continues to to this day, even if this division is no longer the case. Many people believe that Apple has stayed true to their gospel and only makes or supports a 1 button mouse, but the unforutnately named ‘Mighty Mouse’, which shipped in 2005, supports multiple buttons virtually rather than physically (you click on one side or other other to simulate one or the other button), and also has a roller ball and 2 physical side buttons, providing no fewer than 5 buttons. The proliferation of mouse buttons, sometimes 2, sometimes 3, sometimes 5 or more, depends on the system and software one encounters. Some trackball devices have had 5 buttons that effectively provide even more control messages by allowing a different kind of click from different combinations of those buttons. Apple’s latest mouse (the even more unfortunately named ‘Magic Mouse’ – what group is coming up with these names?) even goes farther, making the entire mouse surface another control surface in and of itself, like the trackpad on a laptop. This, to me, is akin to attaching a steering wheel to the top of a gearshift, or some other bizarre composite, but I’ll have to withhold judgement until I try one, even though it sounds like the Industrial Design equivalent of a Turducken.

The point is, complex gestural movements, involving more than a simple click (or double click) on a pointing device have pretty much been adopted by all computer makers, with at least an accepted level of complexity, although for the most part, a user can work up to that complexity, by moving from simple gestures to more complex ones over time, hence the idea of a short cut to a function instead of making  that function only executable from a complex gesture.

As a friend of my parents puts it, ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing’. I shouldn’t be surprised by what I thought was certainly a post on The Onion, but no, it was serious, and it was the Open Office Consortium who was proposing this mouse:


The Open Office Mouse. Really. No, really.

Holy Roller, Batman! This thing is certainly the other end of the spectrum from the mice we’ve seen up until this point, at least for the general public. (More complicated mice like this one have shown up on engineering stations, imaging systems, and countless other vertical application machinery).

If you look carefully (click on the photo to see it a bit larger), you’ll see that it has no fewer than 16 buttons and a roller that are visible. The description actually boasts that it has “18 programmable mouse buttons with double-click functionality” and “Three different button modes: Key, Keypress, and Macro”.  They even show a comparison chart comparing it to other mice on the market.

While I won’t comment on the oddness of an open software consortium designing hardware (or rather, having a designer design some for them), I have to admit that this initial paragraph, on the page ‘About the OpenOfficeMouse, caught my attention:

The OpenOfficeMouse was designed with the goal of being the best and most useful mouse the digital world has seen to date. Initially inspired by the keyboards on the Treo smartphones, it was designed by a game designer who was annoyed with the paltry number of buttons available on high-end gaming mice. Because gaming mice have historically been designed primarily for FPS¹ games, not MMO² and RTS³ games, they do not possess sufficient buttons for the dozens of commands, actions and spells that are required in games that make heavy use of icon bars and pull-down menus. After discovering that the available World of Warcraft mice were nothing more than regular two-button mice decorated with orcs, dwarves, and Night elves, the idea of the WarMouse was born. After much experimentation, it was determined that 16 buttons divided into two 8-button halves were the maximum number of buttons that could be efficiently used by feel alone. However, in the process of design and development, it quickly became apparent that many non-gaming applications would also benefit from having dozens of commands accessible directly from the mouse, especially applications with nested pull-down menus and hotkey combinations. OpenOffice.org was selected as the ideal application suite around which to design this application mouse because the usage tracking feature of OpenOffice.org 3.1 permitted the assignment of application commands to mouse buttons based on the data gathered from more than 600 million actual mouse and keystroke commands enacted by users. The OpenOfficeMouse team are advocates of Free and Open Source Software, which is why we are members of the OpenOffice.org community and have created custom profiles for other OSS applications such as Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird, The Battle for Wesnoth, D-Fend Reloaded, and The Gnu Image Manipulation Program.

So what we have here is a design for a gaming mouse, now re-purposed for general purpose applications (like browsing the web, email, and the Open/MS Office suite of word processing, spreadsheets and presentations).

Maybe it’s because I don’t do much gaming (and by ‘don’t do much’,  I mean hardly at all),  maybe it’s because I come from the ‘make it for a klutz’ school of UI design because I’m not very coordinated, but I think that this approach to User Interface or Industrial Design will never have much of a following. It wasn’t lost on me that I had to look up some of those acronyms to provide the footnotes here. Sure, there will always be some small group of people who want more and more direct power over their work from their hardware, and they often buy the most baroque control devices. For me, however, the whole idea of taking a piece of gaming hardware and repurposing it to work on everyday tasks is about as appealing as using a flight simulator to do your banking. Sure, you might get more fine maneuverability during a funds transfer (if you could master the controls), but it hardly seems worth the effort. Maybe that’s the key here: Having a competitive advantage from  your hardware and your skill with it during a game is far more important and more likely to have you make that effort than being a whiz at moving from cell to cell in your spreadsheet or even triggering one of the 100 or so macros you’ve created for your word processing tasks.

So to the OpenOfficeMouse folks, I say, good luck, but forget about selling one of those mice to me. Now, we start seeing the ‘direct to brain’ controllers, where I don’t have involve my arms and fingers at all with typing and gesturing on the screen but just think where I want to the cursor to go, I’ll be more interested. That would be the 0 button mouse, which I think I’m going to have to address in some future post.


¹first-person shooter
²massively multiplayer online
³real-time strategy

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