Engelbart's big knees-up

9 December 2008

As mouse companies all around the world celebrate the intellectual laziness of the computer industry better known as the 40th anniversary of Douglas Engelbart's demonstration of the mouse, we should be thankful that the pioneer of graphical user interfaces rejected an earlier idea for moving a cursor around the screen.

So that users could keep both hands free for the keyboard, the original plan was to put a lever under the desk that you would then move around with your leg. Can you imagine what you'd have to do to laptops to make that work?


The anniversary is also a reminder of the crushing tendency of the technology business to assume that one size fits all. It's a real shame that it's almost impossible to get a chorded keyboard similar to the one used by Engelbart alongside the mouse in the original demonstration. Companies like Microwriter tried bravely to build a business around them and the chording idea had a brief resurgence in the research community thanks to Thad Starner's work on the Twiddler at MIT and then at Georgia Tech, which you used to be able to buy from spinoff Handykey.

The problem is that the way the industry is set up is that it costs too darn much to build effective prototypes and low-run user interface products. It's a problem that plagues researchers who want to work on ambient intelligence and wearable computers as well. But there is, apparently, no technique in sight that will make it happen.