The Slow Death of the Three-Button Mouse

By Jamie Condliffe on at

Before the days of sleek surfaces and brushed aluminium, my mouse had three buttons. But that central selector has shrivelled into a runty little scroll wheel; the third nipple of the computing world. Where did it all go wrong?

Actually, the rise and fall of the three-button mouse is an emotional tale, one to tug at the heartstrings of even the most ardent technophobe. Well, I exaggerate a little, but when I started digging around to find out where my beloved third button had disappeared to, I found it a fascinating story, so I’m going to pass it on. It starts in an age where computer parts were made of wood. No, seriously.


The Mouse's Tale

Long, long ago in a place far, far away.... OK, OK. A little over three decades ago in sunny California the first mouse was invented by the forward-looking Douglas Engelbart. His first prototype, built in 1963, was made of wood -- wood! -- with cute little metal wheels, and the device picked up its now universal name because of the cord that extended from its rear. He demonstrated the first production model on December 9 1968 at the Convention Centre in San Francisco, at an event that’s gone down in history as “The Mother of All Demos”.

It’s tough to compare the release of that mouse to modern product launches. Prior to that, people had only ever thought to use a keyboard with a computer. This thing was era-defining. What’s more, it had -- you guessed it -- three glorious buttons. Count ‘em, Mac fans.

Apparently during the design process Engelbart advocated "as many [buttons] as possible" and the only reason the team settled for three is because they “could not find anywhere to fit any more switches". Sadly, Engelbart never made a single penny in terms of royalties from his mouse. But he could at least console himself with kick-starting a completely different way of interacting with computers -- one that hasn’t been bettered since.


Magic Number, or Just a Crowd?

That said, the mouse took time to catch on. Its big break is up for debate, sure, but I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that it was copier kings Xerox who shoved it into the mainstream. Xerox used mice internally at their Paolo Alto research centre throughout the '70s, but when they decided to revolutionise office computing in the early 80s -- which, err, they didn’t quite manage -- they decided to unleash the mouse on the public, too. It pains me to say that, by the time Xerox came to launch their revolutionary Star in 1981, its mouse featured just two buttons.

Things get worse. Inspired by the Star, Apple released the Apple Lisa in 1983 and then the the Apple Macintosh in 1984, both of which also shipped with a mouse. But after experimenting with between one and four buttons -- just imagine Douglas Engelbart’s happy little face at the prospect of four -- Apple plumped for an unconventional single selector. They claimed it made the user experience more straightforward. I claim it was a stupid idea that forced users to rely on keyboard shortcuts. In fact, I have proof, because Apple mice can now be tweaked to function as four button devices -- an acknowledgement that they got it wrong in the '80s. Sorry, fanboys.

But all hope was not lost! There were noble crusaders keen to fight the three-button cause, and they came in the shape of PC manufacturers. From their inception, Windows and Linux were designed to work well with three button mice. Hell, Linux was -- and still is -- better if you use one, as the central button can be used to paste text in terminal windows. Imagine the power; the lack of keyboard commands!


The Shrivelled Nipple of Computing

But that freedom was hard to keep hold of. Because our tale turns sour in the early '90s, when some heathen at the stupidly-named Mouse Systems invented the sodding scroll wheel. Things could have been so different but, disastrously, this innovation caught the eye of Microsoft. The Big M then went on to roll the technology into the IntelliMouse in 1996, and included support for it in Office and Internet Explorer. That, ladies and gentlemen, was the death knell for the three-button mouse as we knew it.

Since then, the scroll wheel has become a standard feature of pretty much every mouse you come across. Sure, on some it can be used as a click button, but it’s just not the same. It’s small, fiddly, unresponsive and ugly. It’s a shrivelled mess -- a third nipple of the computing world that sits between your fingers eight hours a day. And nobody likes third nipples.

Disclaimer: I wrote part of this feature on a PC with a two-button mouse. I intend to chastise myself as a result.

Image credit: Thorinside and Paolo Signorini

This feature was originally published in October 2011

Image credit: Wikipedia, Gears from Shutterstock

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