From Abomination to Functionable: Apple’s Atrocious History of the Mouse


People think I’m an Apple apologist.  I suppose I am in the sense that I’m a big fan of their products, but it’s not based on blind faith.  I use their products, I’ve used other makers’ products and I know from experience that Apple’s products work seamlessly and actually understand the users.

That naturally begs the question, are there any Apple products  that I don’t like?

Although I’m currently underwhelmed with the just-announced iPad, for over a decade, the one Apple product I loathed with passion was their mouse.

For a company that introduced the mouse to the world, Apple’s offerings in this category has fallen somewhere between an abomination and a travesty.  Some of the issues can be traced to Steve Jobs himself, but the problem didn’t even rise to the level of asking why there aren’t two buttons because Apple’s mouse since 1998 failed even the most basic test of usability.

Apple started straying from the path with the Apple USB Mouse that came with the original iMac.  Nicknamed the “hockey puck mouse,” Time Magazine appropriately awarded it the dishonor as one of the worst inventions of the 1990s.  A perfect example of a product of form over function, the darn thing didn’t even look that nice.  In daily use, it was unusable; I don’t know of a single owner of the iMac who didn’t replace it.

There is a reason all mouse–save that one–has the identical shape of a rectangular oval: the shape is most comfortable to use.  Apple’s design team apparently never got the message or bothered to learn it on its own by using it.  The circular mouse was far too small to grip and the button (there was of course only one) was difficult to click because the small clickable area was straight on top, not top left where the index finger is.  Its infinite irritability alone justified not buying the iMac.  Thankfully I didn’t use the computer that often, but when I did, I wanted to give the mouse justice by smacking it with a hockey stick.

For reasons unbeknownst, Apple permitted this intolerable condition to persist for two years (and actually exacerbated the problem by including the damn thing in their professional line of computers) until it introduced the Pro Mouse in 2000.  That this mouse can be deemed an improvement is merely a testament to how awful its predecessor was.   The biggest attraction of the Pro Mouse was that its design returned to sanity but it was also technologically advanced because it adopted the newest optical tracking technology and did away with the rubber ball.  Apple, though, couldn’t stop at simply returning to the traditional mouse design.  It thought it clever to turn the entire mouse into a single clickable button–an unnecessary zero button “feature” that the company will continue to obsess with in all future renditions.  

The Pro Mouse, my companion during college, was not a bad mouse–unless you were right-handed using it with an Apple notebook, just like 90% of the its target customers.  My notebook, the PowerBook “Pismo,” placed USB ports on the left side.  The cord on the Pro Mouse was barely long enough to bring the  mouse to the right side, often uncomfortably close to the computer.  It was clear no genius at Apple bothered to test the mouse in daily use with a notebook they themselves sold just a year earlier.

In 2003, Apple introduced the Wireless Mouse, thankfully solving the cord issue.  The only reason this mouse was the most tolerable of the decade was because it was so simple even Apple couldn’t screw it up:  it was merely a wireless version of the single click, “zero button” Pro Mouse.

In 2006, Apple replaced the tolerable Wireless Mouse with the nonfunctioning Mighty Mouse.*  The new mouse was too clever by half.  Apple, in finally deciding to produce a multi button mouse**, spent the valuable R&D time and energy looking for ways to accomplish this simple task without having physical buttons.  In this mightily wasted effort, they produced a mouse with four clickable sections:  the left click, right-click, squeezing of the side and pushing down on the scroll ball.

The four clicks actually worked well enough; it was in fact a convenient feature because of new advances in the operating system such as Exposé and Dashboard.  What made the mouse wholly useless was the 360° scroll ball.  Apple “improved” on the standard scroll wheel by introducing a scroll ball that, in theory, would permit you to scroll down, up, right, left and diagonally.  In reality, it did the latter four that mattered least and didn’t do the first that mattered most.  In daily usage, the scroll ball quickly clogged–in my repeated efforts to replace it, the average lifespan was a matter of months–and the mouse would simply stop scrolling down.  That the wireless version, with batteries, weighed more than the computer hardly made it a pleasure to use.

By 2009, when Apple introduced the Magic Mouse (the names were always underservingly haughty), I can be forgiven for thinking Apple was wholly inept at producing a functioning mouse.  The newest attempt, which Apple mercifully introduced via a press release rather than showing off at a trade show, finally got scrolling right by incorporating the touch screen technology that Apple popularized in the iPhone and the iPod Touch.  Remaining stubbornly consistent, the mouse lacks a physical button.  By adopting the touch pad, Apple reduced the mouse to two clickable areas.

The Magic Mouse is far from perfect.  Aside from its limited utility–it effectively only supports double clicking and scrolling–the size remains too small for comfort.  But having used it for a month, the mouse handles those two basic but most important duties effectively, smoothly and without hassle–something that disturbingly could not be said about Apple’s past efforts.

Magic Mouse is not magical.  It’s not even mighty.  But at least the darn thing works.

*  In reality, Apple had introduced a USB Mighty Mouse a year earlier, providing users with the option of choosing the Wireless Mouse or the Mighty Mouse.

**  This was a decision long overdue because the Mac operating system long supported a multi button mouse, such as Microsoft’s, even though Apple didn’t produce one of its own.


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10 Responses to “From Abomination to Functionable: Apple’s Atrocious History of the Mouse”


  1. 1 Joseph Lee January 28, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    I have always hated Apple’s mouse. Especially the lack of a right click. But I hate apple in general.

    • 2 joesas January 29, 2010 at 12:44 am

      Oh Joseph. How should I point out your ignorance, cluelessness and general idiocy without getting personal? For example, Apple’s mouse does have right click (simply no right, or for that matter, any, buttons). In fact, they had right click support long before they created a two button mouse. Or as another example, little do we remember that before the iPod, the standard MP3 player required you to manually drag music from your computer. I just have to presume that you have no standard for your daily computing and music and phone needs.

  2. 3 Chris Schroeck February 1, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    First, I still *do* manually drag songs from my itunes onto my ipod/iphone – I don’t always want every song that I/Sara own on my ipod.

    Second, I got an iphone a month ago, and I love it. It does everything that it does very smoothly, and the design is just amazing. However, Apple loses points with me when they seem to lock things out for no reason, or for the reason that “we don’t like that feature.” Surfing the web on my iphone works really well, unless I want to use Flash or Java. Why not enable Java? I use gotomypc, and it would be handy to have it on my iphone. But you and I know exactly why they don’t enable java – they want companies like gotomypc to have to develop an app instead, so that Apple can make some money off of it. They try to make the web replace itself with apps so they can get a commission.

    Blah – this is the type of crap that makes me think my next phone will be a Nexus One, or something similar.

    • 4 joesas February 1, 2010 at 11:43 pm

      Chris,

      You should just create a playlist of songs that you want, you know…

      Anyways, you know that Apple’s got into a bit of a problem with Flash with the iPad and I always found it annoying that they didn’t have it in the iPhone. Well, apparently, Steve Jobs recently addressed this in a intracompany town hall meeting. The story is that he’s blaming Adobe flash for most of the crash that happens on a Mac. From the sounds of it, Jobs will neverbring Java to the iPhone…

      Don’t get Nexus One. You’ll regret it…

  3. 5 Tony February 20, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    It’s too bad the revolutionary touch mouse came with pertty much useless software ( throw in a good analogy here for me Joe-san, I’m not good with those :-) ). They essentially treated it like a mouse with a touch scroll – when there’s so much more that can be done with it. Fortunately third party software such as BetterTouchTool, MagicPrefs, etc fill the missing holes ( Multi finger clicks, multi finger swipes, tap dance [ one finger down, then tap the other down – great for previous/forward ], etc ) – but it’s disappointing that a company that always boasts simple, intuitive features didn’t spend an extra couple weeks to build in the proper software for it.

    Oh yeah – not sure if it’s just me, but the mouse was designed with looks in mind, and not ergonomics. Obviously excellent guiding engineering principles?

    • 6 joesas February 21, 2010 at 5:32 pm

      Tony,

      Thanks for visiting!

      So I take it you’ve used this new mouse, which I have to say I enjoy using quite a bit. But now that you’ve mentioned software that expands its usefulness, I am intrigued. Like I wrote, I thought that Apple really reduced the utility of this mouse (which, I guess, is better than not doing anything well). Where can I download this stuff?

      I’m okay with the design, but not thrilled. I still think it’s still a little too hard to use in my hands…

  4. 7 karmasai April 12, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I grew up with MACs, PCs, and UNIX. I’ll be upfront and say I prefer PCs, purely due to expandability, compatibility and the fact that proprietary inventions piss me off. USB is currently the most ubiquitous and popular interface because it’s universal. Tangent aside, I invite you to take a look at the Sony F series laptop, in person, and tell me how it compares to the Apple MacBook pro.

    And also I’m curious if you would dedicate a post to your thoughts on the iPad. Since I feel that it’s a great idea that was pathetically and half-assedly created and who’s features were equally under-pioneered (much like the iPhone), I’m curious to hear your more neutral thoughts.

    • 8 joesas April 13, 2010 at 10:57 pm

      Hey Rich! Long time no talk. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment (on a post that’s rather old!).

      No need to go in detail about Macs v. PCs here, but if you’re priority is expandability, Macs are clearly not your choice. I think, though, that the market for people who are looking for expandability is relatively small. Most consumers use their computers as-is and just get a new computer if the old one isn’t doing the things they want it to. In that sense, Apple barely competes in that market, which is, I’m guessing, by choice.

      Speaking as a long time Mac user, the compatibility problem is non-existent compared to where it used to be. It really is amazing what a difference a decade makes.

      As for proprietary technology, my view is a capitalist view: company’s and people’s creations have to be protected or there won’t be any innovation.

      I think ultimately, people care about things working, and in that department, my God, does Windows fail miserably. Microsoft products drive me crazy because they don’t do the fucking simplest things. Why won’t the pdf attachments copy correctly into a new e-mail, instead of all turning into the same document? Why won’t setting font in a pasted file in Outlook actually not set the font to what you selected? I’ve had my share of issues with Apple products over the years, but this kind of incompetence just fascinates me. I always wonder whether people at Microsoft actually bother using their own product.

      Alas, it’s unlikely I’ll take a look at Windows. I hear Windows 7 is really nice. People say it’s really like a Mac. That’s nice. I think I’ll stick with actual Macs.

      Maybe I’ll write about the iPad sometime. My guess is I have to use it to understand it because when it was introduced I simply didn’t get it. People have said it will change the way you do computing, though. I can see that and that curiosity may be worth $500. We’ll see.

      I’m obviously going to disagree with you and say that the iPhone was an amazing evolution. I knew then that my stock was going to soar. My general view on innovation is it’s not about “features” or new technology. Microsoft in particular has this confused mindset that more is better when less is often more impressive. I don’t mind products that intentionally chooses to have less features so long as the features they do have works. And by works, I don’t mean “get it to work,” but rather “instinctively works.” And the iPhone does that, as compared to that blackberry touch thing. What a nightmare that disaster is.

      When I think of innovation, I think of the Walkman. There’s a great story of how, when Sony salesmen tried to sell the Walkman, the stores refused to carry the product by asking:

      “Why would people want a tape recorder that can’t record?”


  1. 1 Those Damn Ls and Rs « The World According to Joe Trackback on February 8, 2010 at 11:19 am
  2. 2 Innovation (And Why Microsoft Doesn’t Have It) « The World According to Joe Trackback on April 11, 2011 at 11:52 am

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