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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Mouse That Lost To Industry Darwinism

The longer you spend in front of a PC each day, the more important the devices you use to interface with it become.

In Moscow, computer pointing devices (mice) can be a special pain. Filth floats in the air to such an extent that if your mouse is not cleaned regularly, it will get clogged with dust and stop working smoothly. When this happens you need to disassemble it and clean the roller ball and runners.

I was fortunate enough to find a mouse without a ball inside, and after six years it still works the same as the day I bought it. Moreover it also doesn't require a mouse pad, and to use it you don't even need to hold it flat on the table. In my view this mouse is technologically superior to any other I've used. Providing PC makers don't phase out the serial port and I don't tread on it one day, it will last me for as long as I use a PC. But today you have to search to find one. And as far as I can guess, this product was not a commercial success.

The mouse was designed and built by Honeywell Inc. -- in 1992, according to my manual. At that time Honeywell was a computer manufacturer and had its own keyboard division. Not long after I bought the mouse, Honeywell ceased manufacturing computers and I assume the keyboard division was left in limbo. While the rest of the industry paid Taiwanese manufacturers to churn out millions of ball-based mice, production of these "opto-mechanical" mice stopped.

Eventually Honeywell sold the rights to this technology -- to Logitech, if I remember correctly. But it took Logitech another year to decide what they wanted to do with it. When I asked a dealer in 1995 about buying one of these mice they told me they were now "high-end products" starting at a cool $80. Despite my sentimental attachment to the technology, I was not going to pay this kind of money for a mouse.

There are few moving parts in an opto-mechanical mouse and my guess is that it should be cheaper to make than the usual ball-based variety. But since Honeywell never manufactured it in volume, the product never had the low prices offered by computer makers -- most people buy their mouse when they buy their PC. So the technology never caught on: right product, wrong sponsor.

To me this illustrates that the computing ideas or technologies that win out are by no means always the best ones. We are prone to look at the PC as a standard product and forget how it evolved from many competing ideas.

In addition to my mouse, I would also point to the dominant PC desktop operating system and the floppy disk drive. These standards won out more through industrial muscle rather than by superior performance. Few people would argue that MS DOS or PC DOS has many intrinsic advantages over other desktop operating systems. DOS was popular because it was the desktop operating system chosen by IBM. Whatever IBM did at that time the rest of the industry followed. Likewise in 1984, IBM decided that the IBM AT would have a 3.5-inch floppy with a capacity of 1.44 megabytes. And to this day, that is what we are stuck with.

But now the PC is on the brink of major change. Some of the biggest innovations could come in the way we interface with the PC. I heard that one of the Japanese giants plans to offer its home PC product with the keyboard only as an optional extra. When these products begin to appear, it will be worth remembering that no aspect of a PC's design is sacred. There are already plenty of excellent and original ideas out there. You just never knew they existed.

Robert Farish is the editor of Computer Business Russia. Fax: 929-9958; e-mail: