Of Mice and Windows

The tale of Apple popularizing the mouse in the 80’s — taking it from the relative obscurity of the labs at Xerox PARC — is a technology and industry legend. But the fact that mouse had earlier beginnings, invented by Douglas Engelbart (and featured in his Sketchpad demo) in the 60’s is less discussed. Malcolm Gladwell examines this evolutionary sequence as part of his fantastic article in the New Yorker entitled “Creation Myth.”

Gladwell describes three evolutionary stages of innovations as tied to the environment in which the idea, or product, exists. It’s a kind of “three phases of revolutions:”

  1. “Visionary” — When something is conceived before anyone else can imagine it.
  2. “Get it made” – Where things are refined, but in an environment without the need (or ability) to commercialize or apply.
  3. “Go public” – Where threat and constraint (along with improvisation and creativity) push it out into the world.

His account of how the mouse (and the desktop & windows GUI, as well as modern military strategic thinking) has followed these steps is thought-provoking. Can universities do more than come up with new ideas? Can big organizations do nothing more than develop these ideas? Are startups required to popularize (and make mass) these ideas? (You have to read the article for a response to this.)

Given this context, it’s remarkable to watch Apple consistently function in the third phase — acting like a startup — despite their increasingly large size, financial valuation, and market share.

Over the past few years Apple has popularized touch (iPhone) and tablet (iPad) interfaces. They’ve brought new UI metaphors (touch and gestures), and simplified computing (single-tasking and simplified interfaces) to a whole new audience of users — giving non-techies access to the internet and interactive content.

Now Apple, with the latest version of Max OS X, is folding these changes into their desktop OS — OS X Lion. The new OS embraces gestures (via the trackpad), removes scroll bars from windows, and even hides windows entirely as apps can be in full screen mode. Apple is making the desktop experience be more about touch, and more like an iPad. And since buyers are embracing laptops instead of desktops, and as tablets continue their explosive growth, this evolution away from windows & mice makes a lot of sense.

Apple isn’t the first company to bring touch to the desktop. HP’s TouchSmart desktop PCs (introduced in 2007) have a touch-based interface. But it’s just a layer over the traditional Windows OS. TouchSmart doesn’t fundamentally change the OS.

Microsoft’s recently previewed Windows 8 — which adapts many of the UI conventions and stylings of their elegant Windows Mobile 7 to the desktop. But, like TouchSmart, it’s just a layer. You peel it away and the old Windows OS is still running the show.

Would Gladwell describe TouchSmart and Windows 8 as products from “phase 2” companies?

It’s isn’t without some nostalgia that we watch the decline of mice and windows the predominant interaction model. But it’s very exciting to watch the birth of a new “phase 3” — as computing becomes truly mainstream.

OS X Lion - Full screen mode
OS X Lion - iPad-like interface
Windows 8 - Touchable layer
Windows 8 - Touchable app
HP TouchSmart