Whither the Mouse?

A Gartner analyst predicts that technologies such as the multi-touch capabilities of Apple's iPhone are the beginning of the end for the ubiquitous mouse.

The days of the ubiquitous mouse may be coming to an end.

Those were the thoughts of Steve Prentice, a Gartner analyst, as he walked the floor of the 2008 CES show earlier this year and saw a host of ways, from facial recognition technology to the multitouch capabilities of Apple's iPhone, to replace the mouse as one of the main ways people interact with the computer.

Prentice collected his ideas in a new paper - "Gestural Computing: The End of the Mouse" - and he told eWEEK that while the mouse is likely to stick around for some time, the alternatives to this device are hard to ignore. In the next two to four years, Prentice believes the switch from mouse to an alternative paradigm will be well underway.

"You put that all together and it becomes fairly clear to me we are seeing a significant move away from the idea of the one- or two-button mouse," Prentice said in an interview.

While there is no one particular piece of technology that is driving this trend, Prentice said it's a combination of different capabilities that companies are adding to their products that is moving the computing away from the mouse and toward something new. The examples range from the facial recognition features Lenovo added to its consumer line of PCs, to cameras that interact and respond to gestures, to the iPhone and the touch capabilities of Microsoft's upcoming Windows 7.

"I think what is particularly significant is not so much the touch pads we have seen on notebooks for many years now, but the newly arrived multi-touch pads that [Apple products] now use, and we have found the ability to use multiple fingers which vastly increases the range of abilities and potential of those sorts of devices," Prentice said.

The gaming and home entertainment industries are also pushing away from the mouse.

In his report, Prentice pointed specifically to Emotiv Systems, which is developing an interface that uses electroencephalography - a way of measuring the electrical activity of the brain - technology to control gaming console. What is even more important, said Prentice, is that the company is looking to sell this for about $300.

"Here you have taken something that is very geeky and almost medical in nature and have brought it into the living room at a price point of $300 and have turned it into a -I want that, too,' device," he said.

The move to replace the mouse, which has been an integral part of computing since it was first commercially introduced in the early 1980s, also shows the ability of the consumer market, especially gaming and home entertainment, to eventually change the way enterprises think about computing.

While the mouse, as well as the keyboard, will still be used for tasks such as data entry, Prentice said that highly specialized tasks that involve graphics will likely make the switch first with the rest of the business to follow after that initial change over.

Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, also has a skeptical view of the future of the mouse, but believes that switching the minds of users, whether the average consumer or enterprise employee, is not as easy as just presenting some new technologies.

For instance, while some might be interested in multitouch, there are seemingly small issues, such as smudges and dirt on the screen, which could turn others off to the technology.

"I think that natural human interaction is the way to go and some people will embrace it and move toward smaller and smaller devices," Kay said. "On the other hand, some people don't really have the need for it and then we go back to more traditional ways of thinking about input and output."

One area where Kay does think there is room for mutlitouch and other mouse alternatives is the new area of MIDs, or mobile Internet devices, which allow for a good deal of mobility and less reliance on traditional keyboard planes and the mouse.

The mobile phone market is also having a tremendous influence on the PC. There are about three billion mobile phones in use around the globe compared to one billion PCs, and Prentice points to the iPhone and its multitouch capabilities that have been embraced by a small but influential group of users who will likely herald new trends in the market.

Although the days of the mouse may be numbered, Prentice's paper finds that the keyboard will likely remain. For example, while tablets are well suited for certain highly specialized applications, software that recognizes hand writing is not as widespread and is still in the early stages of development. The same goes for voice recognition software, although Microsoft has made strides with products such as Sync.