John Markoff just pinged me with the news that Apple has come out with a multi-button mouse. (John was looking for a quote for an article he's doing about the new mouse; presumably everybody who actually knows something about the subject is at lunch.)
I wrote an article about the first Apple mouse called "Mighty Mouse," which is what they're calling this one. Coincidence? I think not.
The iProduct Effect aside, this is actually a bit of a Big Thing. Apple has been a champion of ease of use, and the Apple mouse has long symbolized that. Everyone knows that. What's interesting about this new mouse-- which has two buttons on top, a scroll ball on top, and buttons on the side-- is that it shows just how much the basic concept of "ease of use" has changed in 25 years. (Indeed, there's a whole invisible history of physical skill that you can trace in the evolution of the mouse.)
Back then, the mouse was a total novelty, and anything with more than one button required users to think and make decisions. In contrast, in an age of Game Boy, Playstation, Treo, Blackberry, and the cell phone (not to mention multibutton mice on Wintel machines), kids can look at a device with four buttons and a scroll ball and think, "Hey, that's easy to use." To me, the best indicator of just how far the goal-posts that define ease of use have moved is the now-pervasive use of thumb buttons on mice. Doug Engelbart wanted to put more than three buttons on his mouse, but couldn't figure out how; apparently they didn't think of putting them on the side of the mouse, under the thumb.*
What this tells us is that while the concept of "ease of use" is wonderful, and to be encouraged at all times, just what constitutes ease of use will change over time. It's not some unchanging Platonic ideal; it varies and evolves over time, and is defined by a community's exposure to earlier technologies, levels of mechanical or physical skill, and a bunch of other factors.
Now for one little correction of Apple's marketing copy.
In the beginning, there was one button. Then there were two.
Actually, no. Engelbart's mice, Jack Hawley's X063X mouse, the Xerox PARC mouse, all had three buttons. The Hovey-Kelley guys-- who did most of the design work on the original Apple mouse-- went through a lot of designs, including a number of multibutton designs; they went so far as to build a working three-button prototype. The single-button mouse was a significant social achievement, and a notable commercial success; arguably, since it made the mouse easier to use, it was also a notable technological innovation. (If you're really interested, a bunch of primary documents on the first Apple mouse-- including interviews with the design team, and a lot of pictures and drawings-- are available here.)
* In a 1987 interview with Stanford's Henry Lowood and Judy Adams, Engelbart said, "People have asked me, 'How did you decide on three buttons?' Well, it was all we could put on. That was all there was room for." A similar quotation is in a more recent Wired article: "We also did a lot of experiments to see how many buttons the mouse should have. We tried as many as five. We settled on three. That's all we could fit." This has always struck me as interesting, because it suggests that they weren't thinking about locating buttons on the side, under the thumb. (Though there's also a bit of evidence that Engelbart meant the interior of the mouse, not the exterior. According to the Bootstrap Institute, "Engelbart would have gone for even more buttons, but there was only room for three of the needed micro-switches available in those days.")
[To the tune of Peter Gabriel, "Big Time," from the album "Shaking The Tree".]