Saturday, December 13, 2008

Happy 40th, Computer Mouse

This week the iconic computer mouse turned 40. On December 9, 1996, the first prototype was unveiled. This ancestor of the modern mouse had only one button on top of a notably non-ergonomically shaped, yet still not bad looking, wood case. Motion of the mouse was detected by two rolling wheels on the bottom set at right angles to each other. Since that early design idea, the mouse has developed additional buttons, a rolling track ball in place of the two wheels, a scrolling wheel (on some models) and the option of a cable-free mouse.

Clearly the mouse’s emergence has empowered the emergence of graphical user interfaces, like Windows, and productivity software that can offer functionality far beyond that of the DOS era. Indeed, one can only speculate about whether the personal computer would have developed its immense popularity had the mouse not become a standard part of all systems. For that matter, had the mouse not have been invented by a British group of outside the box thinkers in the 1960's, then Microsoft might have found it necessary to invent one themselves. Given their track record with Windows, I shudder at that idea. Let’s see, had that happened, would we have progressed through MS Mouse 3.1, MS Mouse 95, MS Mouse 98, etc up through MS Mouse Vista? Ugh.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and, as a thought experiment, envision a world in which the keyboard is the only means of interfacing with a computer. In this world, all commands would be entered only through keyboard shortcut keystroke combinations. In this world, could monitor color choices have progressed beyond 16 colors, given that each available color would need its own keystroke combination?

I will admit I qualify as a technology old timer, if not outright dinosaur, despite only being in my early to mid 50's. When I started my college career as a chemistry major, the highest tech calculating device I used was a pocket slide rule. A year later, when I took a FORTRAN IV programming class, a keypunch was used to record program instructions and test data on 80 column Hollerith punch cards. These, in turn, were entered into the school’s NCR Century 50 small mainframe computer (which filled most of a small room) with a main memory (the term RAM didn’t exist in those days) of 16k of hard-wired ferrite core memory. The impact printer sat on the floor, and generated black capital letters, numbers and a few standard typographical symbols a line at a time on the very wide, green and white striped paper commonly seen in those days. Color printing with multiple fonts and special symbols? Only in science fiction. The university I attended later on used an IBM 370 mainframe, and its 8 platter, 12" wide removable disks held (at that time) an impressive 600 megabytes.

Contrast that with today: instead of discussing main memory in terms of thousands of bytes of true physical memory, now memory is contained in sets of small chips capable of holding billions of bytes of information. Just a few years ago, the debate about the ideal amount of RAM centered on 256 MB vs 512 MB. Now, with the release of Windows Vista the debate over how much RAM is needed has shifted to “which works better: 3 gigabytes or 4?” (Or is that question actually: What is the largest amount of RAM that Vista can still crash?”)

In the late 1990's, typical hard drive capacities topped out in the hundreds of megabytes, and a one gigabyte drive was still in development. Now, hard drive capacities in the hundreds of gigabytes are commonplace and a one trillion byte capacity hard drive is on the market. When the emergent solid state memory technology achieves commercial viability, over time, even one terabyte mechanical hard drives will become obsolete, replaced by solid state drives (SSDs) that will offer storage capacities far beyond mechanical hard drive technology capabilities. By being moving part free, this emergent technology will also be able to provide significantly faster response times. This, in turn, will either challenge engineers to significantly increase front side bus speeds, or develop an entirely new internal data transfer technology capable of keeping up with the SSDs.
My mind feels boggled at times whenever I pause to reflect on the extent to which computer technology has developed and grown since I studied FORTRAN IV. That first computer I successfully programmed lacked the ability to print in color, did not have a monitor, used disk packs the size of a large pizza, and filled a small room. This blog is being revised and finished on a Sony Vaio laptop with a back lit TFT color monitor. Instead of having to go to the computer, I am parked in my easy chair, with this computer parked on my abdomen.

So the question remains: how much of this computer technological growth would have happened in the absence of the mouse?

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