Mouse musings

KensingtonCornell UniversityApple Inc.

One mouse does not fit all.

Response to last week’s column, in which I made the case for Apple abandoning its single-button mouse for a two-button one, was eye-opening.

Aside from confirming the depth of conviction many Mac users have on this issue, many readers shared their insights.

Predictably, reaction covered a wide spectrum -- ranging from those who loathed the two-button mouse to those who felt two buttons weren’t nearly enough. One reader even suggested abandoning the traditional mouse altogether for a trackball, essentially an upside-down mouse with the roller ball on top.

He recommended a Kensington Expert Mouse Pro Trackball, an intimidating device consisting of a large roller ball surrounded by 10 buttons and a scroll wheel. Most fans of the two-button mouse felt it was past time for Apple to get on board.

"Any modern OS [that] uses contextual menus and a Web browser is STILL the killer app for many home users," one reader wrote. "To not provide an adequate mouse comes across as cheap, non-intuitive and stubborn."

"As far as I’m concerned, the one-button mouse is out of date," wrote another. "Why should a person buy a new Mac, then head for the store to change the mouse?

"Put a decent mouse on it with a scroll wheel, and maybe they’ll sell more Macs."

The majority, however, defended the one-button mouse -- and for many reasons beyond those discussed last week.

One reader said that, while expert users may prefer multibutton mice, trackballs or other exotic input devices: "The novice user, and many others, still has a 50-50 chance of hitting the wrong button on a two-button mouse. ... The one-button mouse offers the best out-of-box experience for everyone.

"And don’t forget, many of the Mac’s users are children," the reader said.

Another noted that Apple’s current Pro Mouse is, in effect, a "no-button" mouse -- the top is a single molded piece that "clicks" on the base encased beneath it.

The reader, a convert from Microsoft Corp.’s Windows, added: "I was so thrilled to get away from the complexities of the Windows mice and the world of multibutton mice."

A couple of readers pointed out that the single-button mouse forces software developers to make sure features can be accessed using just the one button. This safeguard, they said, prevents "lazy" programmers from relying on a second mouse button to provide access to functions.

Ordinary users, unclear on which functions required the second button, would have trouble finding them -- if they found them at all -- they said.

"It’s developer inattention that makes a rat’s nest out of Windows," one reader wrote. "Apple knows that if you don’t hold them to the line, they will slip and slip."

This same reader said having a second button for easier access to contextual menus is a mixed blessing: "Your experience with contextual menus wouldn’t be so wonderful if they were mandatory, which is why they aren’t."

Corporate technology-support folks who spend much of their time training inexperienced users, most of them on Windows PCs with two-button mice, voted for simplicity.

"The first thing that trips them up is the difference between the left and right mouse buttons," one trainer wrote.

Another proponent of the single-button mouse offered this: "If you’re left-handed, you can plug it into the port on the other side of the keyboard and use it without having to work ‘backwards,’ as it were. This is also the reason Mac mice plug into the keyboard and not the back of the computer."

Perhaps the most frequently mentioned point among the responses was ergonomics, which -- of course -- both sides claimed favored their view.

"I find more than one button to be cumbersome, and my hand cramps sooner with a multibutton mouse," wrote a reader who identified herself as a photo retoucher. Others held the opposite view.

With Mac users divided over how many buttons a mouse should have, perhaps some ergonomics experts should join the discussion.

Alan Hedge, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and the director of the school’s Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory, supported the one-button mouse. While saying it is easier to use, he warned that it was more likely to cause repetitive-stress injuries.

"A two-button design allows different functions to be assigned to left-right buttons, and this can spread the repetitive loading among a couple of fingers -- but the user has to remember which button does what," Hedge said.

"The basic rule of ergonomic design is the simpler the design, the greater the usability -- so multibutton mice can be complex for folks and require some setup time to assign functions to buttons."

Dan Eisman, cofounder of HealthyComputing.com and an admitted Mac enthusiast, agreed with Hedge on the two-button mouse’s ergonomic advantages.

"It lets you easily accomplish complex tasks that would otherwise have required a few extra keystrokes," said Eisman, who advocated the use of keyboard shortcuts as an even better way of reducing keystrokes and cutting the risk of repetitive-stress injury.

Still, Eisman prefers two buttons.

"Mice with multiple buttons allow us to put the otherwise dormant fingers of our mousing hand to better use," he said.

So despite all the commentary, we appear no closer to a resolution. Personally, I still favor my two-button mouse, and still think Mac users should at least try one. But many Mac users do have sound reasons for keeping their one-button mouse.

But what does Apple Computer Inc. say?

As a matter of policy, Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., never comments on products that aren't shipping. All Apple would say officially is that they provide a one-button mouse because of the simplicity of the design.

Here are some suggestions from readers on possible compromises: Apple could build a two-button mouse and sell it as an upgrade to "power users," or the company could supply a two-button mouse that functioned as a one-button mouse until "enabled" in a control panel.

I'll suggest yet another option: Apple keeps its "no-button" mouse design but adds a scroll wheel. The purpose of the wheel should be evident, even to novices, thus adding functionality without adding confusion.

Those who want more sophisticated devices can always buy them; there’s certainly plenty of alternatives.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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