Image: XEROX PARC
A short black line blinks in front of you on the screen. One hand rests on a keyboard, the other on a mouse. You stand poised to scroll, reload, double click¿perhaps to open a spreadsheet or the newest installment of Tomb Raider. So ubiquitous are the computer monitor, keyboard and mouse that hardly a person alive in the industrialized world cannot relate to that setup. And yet a host of new technologies that promise to make personal computing even easier¿among them voice recognition, handwriting recognition and touch screens¿are emerging.
There is certainly room for improving how we talk to computers. "I don't think anybody is in love with the PC here," says Rickson Sun, director of research and development at IDEO, a product-design consulting firm based in Palo Alto, Calif. "We've spent millions of years evolving to this point, sort of hunting and gathering, moving around, not sitting down in front of screens." But not everyone believes that new technologies will completely replace existing standards. Whereas the mouse may soon be a thing of the past, the traditional keyboard is most likely here to stay.
During the 1960s, the first keyboards and monitors were nothing short of revolutionary. To interact with the earlier computers¿machines such as the Mark1, the ENIAC and the UNIVAC¿users had to rely on punch cards. The original monitors were based on cathode-ray tubes (CRT), a technology borrowed from TV screens. The familiar QWERTY keyboard¿named after the order of the five keys in the top left-hand corner of the keyboard¿hailed from mechanical typewriters. These CRT monitors and QWERTY keyboards were far from user-friendly in today's sense, but before the graphical user interface (GUI) came on to the scene, they faced no competition or complement.
Images: STANFORD RESEARCH INSTITUTE (left), LOGITECH (right)
"[At that time] the mouse would have been absolutely useless because everything worked from the keys of the keyboard," explains Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University. "So the advent of the GUI led to this sort of requirement for different kinds of input devices." The first truly modern PC was the ALTO, developed at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1973. This computer, introduced 11 years before the Apple Macintosh, had a GUI and a mouse. The Macintosh took the mouse mainstream, and it became standard on all PCs when IBM-compatible computers switched from MS-DOS, a key-based operating system, to Windows.
What followed was a lot of refinement but few radical changes. The mechanical mouse became optical and wireless, and scroll wheels were added. Manufacturers introduced the trackball, based on the same technology, as an alternative to the mouse on laptop computers. The LCD screen¿a thinner and lighter version of the CRT monitor¿emerged. And some computers incorporated more ergonomical versions of the old QWERTY keyboard.
True innovation was, as usual, born out of necessity when computers shrank further in the form of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). Early PDAs looked like mini-laptops, and their lilliputian keyboards were hard to use¿especially if you had to hold the device in one hand as you typed with the other. To get around this problem, PDA designers took on handwriting recognition technologies. The earliest versions failed. But when US Robotics developed their popular PDA, the Palm Pilot, they introduced Graffiti, a shorthand notation that the device could read more easily than actual cursive.