In praise of Apple's horrible mice

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Over the last twenty years, Apple’s hardware has steadily conquered every aspect of my computing life. As I type this, my laptop, keyboard, monitor, phone, and tablet all sport the company’s iconic logo—a reminder of how successful the folks from Cupertino are at designing electronics that I, and many others, want to use.

The one notable exception to this rule is the humble mouse, a device that the company has almost pathologically attempted to reinvent time and time again since it first introduced one with the Lisa back 1983—in the process creating an almost perfect metaphor for why the tech giant is so successful at design.

One man, one love, one button

Apple’s fixation with mouse buttons is legendary. While PC manufacturers gave adding more buttons little thought and, indeed, believed that doing so would increase the user’s productivity, Steve Jobs waged an endless war against the additional complexity that he believed came with having more than one button.

It’s easy to make fun of what looks like a needless obsession for such a small detail, but that’s exactly what sets Apple apart from many of its competitors. And, despite the fact that multi-button mice have become the norm, Jobs’s decision to squeeze every last drop of functionality from a single switch has paid off in many ways. For one thing, all of Apple’s current pointing devices don’t have any visible buttons and offer a huge amount of finger-tapping real estate … a design characteristic that has now been copied by many of the company’s competitors.

apple macintosh plus mouse All About Apple

The Mac Plus mouse, with its iconic single button.

But that’s not all; Cupertino’s love affair with the button has also found its way onto the company’s mobile devices, where the Home button wears many different hats—and ultimately acts as a visual and tactile anchor that users can unambiguously detect and use without having to look at their devices.

Rock, paper, scissors, plastic, glass, metal—and lasers

Like many of the company’s other products, Apple’s mouse has gone through a vast gamut of fabrication techniques over the years, from the industrial-strength plastic of the original model to the translucent candy of the 1990s to the current Magic Mouse, which is a beautiful combination of glass and metal.

While the rest of industry settled on plastic from the very beginning, Cupertino has methodically explored material after material in the quest for a pointing device that could fit perfectly within its lines of computer hardware, and has continued to adopt new technologies, like laser tracking and capacitive glass, that have greatly changed the way we interact with our mice.

mighty magic Yutaka Tsutano on Flickr

Apple's Mighty Mouse—one of the densest objects known to humankind—and Magic Mouse—one of the least comfortable.

To be sure, there have been a few misses here and there; for example, the Mighty Mouse, while gorgeous, was so heavy that its insides may well have composed of plutonium, and the Magic Trackpad (which I continue to misspell as Tragic Macpad), is proof that what works on a laptop doesn’t necessarily work on your desktop.

The company’s continuous iteration, however, has also paid dividends. Capacitive glass and hidden buttons may not be ideal in a standalone device, but they have made the trackpad on my MacBook Pro my favorite pointing device and all but eliminated the need for an external mouse—which, in turn, has freed me to work just about anywhere.

Skating to where the puck should have never gone

One aspect of mice that Apple hasn’t quite mastered—at least so far—is its shape. Even discounting the complete left turn that was the infamous “puck”-shaped USB Mouse, the company’s pointing devices have never really felt quite that good in your hand. Even the current Magic Mouse, sleek though it may be, is rather awkward to hold, and eventually gives me cramps.

Ironically, this is one issue that many of the company’s competitors have tackled quite successfully. Microsoft’s own line of mice, for example, includes many models that are extremely comfortable, even when held for extremely long periods of time, and Logitech has been manufacturing ergonomically sound devices for many years.


The Magic Trackpad shows that Apple isn't afraid to explore mouse designs that are out of the box.

As good as Apple’s design philosophy is, this issues exemplifies its dark side: The quest for industrial beauty sometimes causes the company to sacrifice usability and practicality in the name of better-looking devices.

The once mighty mouse

Apple hasn’t introduced a new mouse since the Magic Mouse, which came out in 2009; it was followed by the Magic Trackpad in 2010. This could indicate that the company considers these two devices to definitively encompass its current industrial design language of glass and metal—or perhaps it’s simply a sign that it has been otherwise busy, making money hand over fist with its mobile devices.

Either way, if history is any indication, we can expect that the next pointing device to come out of Cupertino’s labs will once again demonstrate how much attention Apple’s designers and engineers place on reinventing something that pretty much everyone else takes for granted.

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