For almost 30 years, they have scurried across the globe with relentless speed, spawning new generations as they darted through holes in our desks to colonise the space beside our keyboards. The mouse has shown an extraordinary ability to survive the breakneck speed of technological evolution. Nobody has carried out a census of these denizens of the desktop, but it's certain that billions of mice have double-clicked their way into homes and offices, helping everyone from tech-savvy toddlers to silver surfers to control their PCs.
But the pace of change is finally starting to test the resilience of the mighty mouse, and some experts say it has become an endangered species on the verge of extinction.
The chief doomsayer is Steve Prentice, an analyst with the IT research firm Gartner, whose "End of the Mouse" report caused a stir earlier this year. Prentice says the biggest challenge is the different ways we use our computers now. The prototype mouse, made more than 40 years ago, was called "the X-Y position indicator for a display system". The name didn't catch on, but it sums up what the mouse still does: point at things on a flat space shown on a screen. That's fine for typing up a document or making a spreadsheet, but today's computers perform a wide variety of tasks.
"We need to open the third dimension," Prentice says. "As games and virtual worlds become more advanced, the limitations of a 2-D pointing device are coming to the fore. If I want to throw a ball in a computer game, or pinch and squeeze a photo to manipulate it, a mouse is no use."
The mouse of the future is already evolving. The big industry names are showing off technology that uses cameras to pick up the movement of hands to control what happens on-screen, while the kinds of controllers transforming computer gaming, such as Nintendo's motion-sensing Wii remote, are already being used to click buttons and move cursors. "History shows us that what happens in the home rapidly moves into the workplace," Prentice says. "In the business environment, the mouse will be around for five to 10 years; in the home, it will die even faster."
Douglas Engelbart was a radar technician at the Stanford Research Institute in California when he was tasked with developing a simple way to navigate information pinging across the screens of the world's earliest computers. In 1964, he unveiled his prototype, a small wooden box with two wheels and a red button on top. The movement of the wheels, which rolled along a perpendicular axis, corresponded to the movement on the screen, just as the movement of a laser over a desk does in today's mice.
Mouse evolution soon followed his breakthrough. In 1972, Bill English, who worked with Engelbart on the wooden device, invented the ball mouse, and the first commercial mouse rolled out in 1983 with the Apple Lisa. The development of the laptop led to the integrated touchpad, on which the pointer on screen traced the movement of the user's finger.
In the early 1980s, Pierluigi Zappacosta and Giacomo Marini set up a small firm in the Swiss village of Apples. More than 25 years after it released its first mouse, the P4, Logitech remains a pioneer. The firm has made a staggering 900 million mice, and its Chinese plant makes 12 million pointing devices a month.
The devices Logitech and its competitors produce have grown buttons, scroll wheels and wireless technology, but they are essentially the same as Engelbart's landmark mouse, and remain the default choice for computer users. But in another sector of the IT world, controller devices have changed beyond recognition. "The cutting edge is in gaming," Prentice says, "with computer games that not only look 3-D but work in 3-D. At a conference last week, I played a demo of American football that used video cameras to analyse the position of my body and limbs and reconstruct it in real time on screen. When I threw my arm, the character threw the ball in that direction. The harder I threw, the further it went."
Prentice sees what he calls "video interpretation" as the biggest threat to the mouse. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, he was wowed by another demo. "Videos facing forwards recognised my face and displayed a menu when I held up my arm. I could then select what I wanted by moving my hand." This technology, which could be used for moving files, manipulating photos or navigating webpages, could give rise to the kinds of interactive screen used by Tom Cruise in the film Minority Report. "The idea of interacting with a computer by waving, smiling or moving is attractive," Prentice says.
But what good is a "gestural interface" to someone entering data into a spreadsheet at a desk in Slough or Bangalore? "For some, this technology is not going to have as much of an impact," Prentice concedes. "But computing hardware is defined by the consumer market. Few business people need to take photos or watch films, yet nearly all mobiles have cameras, and laptops have DVD drives."
Others are keen to temper predictions of the mouse's imminent demise. "It's an exaggeration," says Thibaud Nolf, a mouse expert at Logitech, where mouse sales grew 38 per cent by the end of March. "We've been in this business for 27 years, and there's no clear reason for saying the mouse is going to disappear soon." Instead, Nolf predicts the mouse will continue to evolve to include new technologies. Logitech's latest pointing devices are hybrids that work as mice but include technology to work in 3-D. "The mouse is still the best way to control computers easily and accurately," he says.
Even Prentice admits the mouse has merits that could prolong its life, despite technology pushing it towards extinction. "Mice are simple and intuitive. Design and style count for a lot – there's a tactile element. The best mice were ergonomic, unlike the boxes we used to have, and they felt good." Despite his parting ode to the rodent on our desks, it's perhaps telling that Prentice is already talking about the mouse in the past tense.
Of mice and men future computer controllers
If the mouse does survive, it could turn blue. Microsoft is making a "Blue Track" mouse that uses blue LEDs rather than a red laser and works on more surfaces.
Logitech's MX Air is a mouse but lift it up and it turns into a pointer you can wave to control menus.
Apple's covetable iPhone screen is set to revolutionise the laptop touchpad. Stroke more than one finger to scale pictures or zoom into maps.
Toshiba's high-end Qosmio laptops already users to control the pointer via its webcam, using an outstretched fist. The firm is also developing a TV that relies on gestures instead of a remote control.
Gaming firms are developing mind-control headbands that pick up brain signals and facial movements to control the action. A similar device would allow us to navigate our PCs with the power of thought.