By Arik Hesseldahl
For years, Apple Computer (AAPL) wanted to build a better mouse, knowing full well how opinionated its loyal users might be on the subject. Small wonder that, within hours of rolling out a new multi-button mouse on Aug. 3, the company was once again in the middle of a philosophical row, the likes of which its faithful are famous for.
Selling for $50, the Mighty Mouse, as it's called, is a bold stroke: The computer maker best known for its innovative designs has broken with a single-button mouse tradition that dates back to the 1984 launch of the original Macintosh computer. In the meantime, mice with three or more control buttons have become de rigueur in the non-Mac world.
Naturally, Apple's outspoken adherents are either aglow or aghast. Many Apple fans have been itching for a more functional mouse on the Mac platform, straining to be productive without the "right-click" function so typical to the experience on Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows. But traditionalists say Apple's single-button approach is more closely aligned with its devotion to creating a streamlined user interface.
TAILING OTHERS? No matter where you come down, Apple has shunned convention all over again with its latest product. Jobs & Co. couldn't just slap on a scroll wheel and another button. Instead, it has built a multi-button mouse that looks like the simpler single-button device, with the two main buttons covered inside an enclosure.
The scrolling wheel is a tiny rolling ball that gives users the ability to roll the screen-page view in any direction. The ball also serves as a button, and another button is deployed by squeezing the mouse on its sides.
Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif., thinks the move to a multi-dimensional mouse is long overdue; "Adding a second button and a trackball to the mouse is neither innovative nor unique. These are things that others were doing in the mid-1990s."
NOT TOO REVOLUTIONARY. Still, he adds, it was much needed. Enderle thinks Apple's reluctance to abandon a single-button mouse hurt its prospects for attracting customers away from the Windows realm. For them, "moving to an (old-fashioned) Mac mouse has been like cutting off one of their hands," he says. "The good news here is that Apple is stepping away from that single-button quirkiness."
David Moody, an Apple vice-president in product marketing, says Mighty Mouse is designed to satisfy both single-button Mac traditionalists as well as those eager for more functionality. "We wanted to make sure we didn't compromise the experience for someone who prefers a single button," he says. "There are plenty of multi-button mice on the market, but the problem with them is that they add some complexity."
The scroll wheel, the most obvious change in the mouse's appearance, is geared in part toward Apple software applications like iMovie and GarageBand, plus professional apps such as Logic, says Scott Broderick, Apple's product manager in charge of the new device. These applications are used to edit video and sound on a time line, tasks that often call for scrolling horizontally.
"HOCKEY PUCK." The buttons can also be programmed to launch software applications or to invoke features unique to the Mac operating system, such as Dashboard, an application that comes with the latest OS version. Dashboard grabs small bits of information from the Web, like weather or sports scores, and shows them in a small window visible at a glance.
The market for computer mice is hardly tiny. While it doesn't break out annual sales of mice by units, Swiss electronics manufacturer Logitech International (LOGI) claimed in 2003 it had sold 500 million mice over its 24-year history, which would make the mouse its largest selling product. For the fiscal year ending Mar. 31, 2005, Logitech reported sales of nearly $1.5 billion and a profit of $149 million. And it said sales of cordless mice grew by 59% from the year ending Mar. 31, 2004. Half of its sales, Logitech said, were $749 million worth of keyboards and mice.
Apple users have always been vocal about their mice. When the first iMac desktop computers debuted in 1998 with a rounder, flatter mouse intended to give more ergonomic comfort, Apple customers dubbed it a "hockey puck." Many criticized the design because it made controlling the cursor less precise.
NEXT ITERATIONS. Apple's last two major changes in mouse design involved turning the entire upper enclosure into a clickable button and adding optical tracking in 2000. That optical mouse quickly became the standard one that ships with all Apple desktop computers. In 2002, it adapted that design into a battery-powered wireless model that uses Bluetooth radio-frequency technology. The wireless version still sells as a $59 stand-alone add-on product.
It stands to reason that Apple's next trick would be to make the Mighty Mouse wireless as well. Moody, citing Apple's policy of not commenting on future product plans, says simply: "We haven't announced one yet." But first, of course, Apple users will have something to say about it. Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York