Imagining a computer that doesn’t use a pointing device is like trying to imagine a car without a steering wheel. Intellectually, you’re aware that they used to build them that way. But no matter how gifted you are by way of creative visualization, you can’t see how the automobile would have had such a transforming effect upon society if cars were still steered with tillers or cranks or any other of the many bad ideas that today you can only find in the Museum of Industry or possibly a cartoon zeppelin. The mouse wasn’t just an accessory. It was an enabler.
A mouse needed a graphical user interface. A GUI meant a new, user-oriented OS that appealed to average humans, not just computer geeks. A less tech-savvy user base meant hardware had to be easier to set up, and peripherals that had to install and configure themselves on their own.
So if you’re the guy who invented the mouse and you’re reading this: good job. Honest. It goes to prove that no one product or piece of software can ever truly revolutionize technology. It’s always done by some little thing that forces us to totally rethink all the assumptions we’ve made about how we’re supposed to relate to computers and the services that they provide… backed up as always by people who Get It and push this new idea along.
But it’s astonishing to remember that the Macintosh 128 was introduced two decades ago. Twenty years before that, one single piece of Internet porn – and not even the good stuff, mind you – would have filled up a computer that occupied a whole floor. Nerds of the day sneered that any computer that used a keyboard instead of toggle switches was just a toy.
A few years ago I theorized that the Next Big Thing would involve butts. Imagine the implications if every computer came with a mousepad and a buttpad. Now, obviously, only a gifted few of us have any rear-end dexterity at all, so forget about cursor control. But it’d be interesting enough as an input device if it only allowed my Mac to figure out whether or not I’m actually seated in front of it. If I’ve walked away, why fill the screen with documents I can’t use?
Clear away the whole UI and fill the screen with big pictures and enormous text so I can glance up from the sofa and see a flashing icon that indicates an urgent email has just arrived from my editor and I need to put down the PlayStation controller and go read it. When I’m away from the desk for a long time, hey, what a perfect time to do system maintenance! And be sure to re-lock my system keychain in case someone walking by tries to access my password-protected assets while I’m away. A good idea. It was just a bit ahead of its time, like the Newton. I still think it could work, and to all those investors who lost their pension plans in BottomClick.Net, all I can say is that the bankruptcy was as big a surprise to me as it was to you.
Besides, the buttpad only slapped at the concept. The real transforming change, the thing that will finally push us past the increasingly mouldy interface concept of keyboard-and-mouse, is Bluetooth. I’ve got a Bluetooth mobile phone and a Bluetooth PDA and a Bluetooth headset, and any one of them would make the ultimate buttpad. With my headset on, my Bluetooth-enabled Mac can sense when I’m nearby, but it can also use its signal strength to decide whether I’m two feet away, twenty, or have left the building entirely. Even better, the OS could use a unique identifier in the device to find my physical location and verify my identity across a network. Imagine walking into an office on the other side of the building and five seconds after you sit down, the iMac on the desk has mounted your Home folder locally and its copy of iTunes is playing songs from your personal library?
We haven’t even got started yet. Headset, PDA, phone… each one offers input and output. A simple, slimmed down Mini-Mac interface could allow you to exploit your Mac from anywhere in the room, not just from the chair at your desk. Your phone chirps; you pick it up and see an alert from your Mac warning you that Safari has just unexpectedly quit. Or, you touch a button on your headset and ask “When is my next appointment?” And through the earpiece, MacInTalk Victoria tells you. Or you glance at your PDA, whose display always shows the headers from the latest five emails that have arrived. I get the information I need and can continue staring numbly at my TV screen while flicking my thumbs, looking for cars to steal and pedestrians to run over.
The concept of keyboard-mouse-screen has remained unchanged for two decades. The concept of desktop Mac teamed with a wearable-slim-wireless-interface could be exactly what the huddled masses have been yearning for.
It might be a while before Apple’s truly ready for this sort of thing, though. At the moment, the only way Panther can exploit a Bluetooth headset is as an iChat AV microphone. And while Salling Clicker is an extraordinary utility for making your Bluetooth PDA or phone work closely with your Mac, true revolution will never be a third-party product.
But Bluetooth is built into all new PowerBooks and it’s an encouraged option on desktops. And Apple has come out with a smooth, compact Bluetooth mouse. All of the proximity-sensing advantages you get by walking around wearing a Bluetooth headset can be achieved by sticking your mouse in your pocket when you leave your desk.
It’s ironic that the most revolutionary thing to take the place of a mouse might just be another mouse. And it’s unfortunate that you folks were betting that for basic rudeness, this column couldn’t top the suggestion that we should be operating our Macs with our buttcheeks. Because when you stick a mouse in your trouser pocket, exciting and wonderful things can happen.