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Undead Tech: Apple’s Magic Mouse Has Trackball Bad-Assitude

digg_url = ‘//www.fastcompany.com/blog/chris-dannen/techwatch/apples-magic-mouse-stealing-trackball-bad-assitude-2009?partner=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+fastcompany%2Fheadlines+(Fast+Company+Headlines)’; digg_skin = ‘compact’; Until we can harness our brain-power for desktop pointing, Apple’s Magic Mouse will remain one of the most innovative (and polarizing) clickable rodents on the market. But it definitely isn’t new. In fact, if you look at …

Until we can harness our brain-power for desktop pointing, Apple’s Magic Mouse will remain one of the most innovative (and polarizing) clickable rodents on the market. But it definitely isn’t new.

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In fact, if you look at how your hand is supposed to use Magic Mouse, which Apple released last month and updated for Windows this week, it’s really not a mouse at all. To your fingers, it’s more like a trackball.

Magic Mouse

The Magic Mouse asks you to draw your digits around the surface as if you’re sweeping some diminutive kitchen floor. Doing that allows you to scroll in any direction, including in a circle, or flip between Web pages just like on an Apple trackpad.

You may remember feeling this same sense of “magic,” and not talking about the last time you watched Serendipty with a chocolate-and-Vicodin milkshake. The “magic” mouse feels brings back muscle-memories of this bad-boy: the TrackMan Marble+, one of many beloved and now-anachronistic-seeming trackballs that combined the best of mice–scroll wheel, three buttons–with the planted bliss of the ball-pointer. (Image courtesy of this blog.)

TrackMan Marble+

Microsoft also took a crack at this kind of hybrid device in their Intellimouse line with this marbly monolith, the Trackball Explorer, versions of which have a cult following that keeps eBay prices high.

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Trackball Explorer

Microsoft’s competitors have keep churning out trackballs, some of which are almost identical to their forbears. This thing–the Kensington Expert Mouse–looks just like it did 15 years ago.

Kensington Expert Mouse

Logitech still has three trackballs that also look like slightly steroidal versions of their former selves, most of which (like the aforementioned Trackman Marble) date back to around 1995.

As this blog post from Logitech’s corporate blog shows, some people are still singing the trackball’s praises in 2009. Computer-users obsessed with precision love that you can click a trackball without accidentally moving the cursor, and that the device needs less desk-space than a mouse. Turbo-nerd gamers also like it because, well, no one else does, and that makes it effing sweet.

Trackball

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Trackballs also harken back to their gamer youth. Arcade games picked up the device in the 1980s and quickly brought it to ubiquity. Atari’s game Centipede was one of the earliest and most successful iterations of the trackball-controlled arcade machine, and the company later brought the trackball to home consoles, too, like this Atari 5200. (Photo courtesy this blog.)

Atari

Of course, Atari didn’t invent the trackball; that honor goes to the Royal Canadian Navy, which built the first recorded trackball device using a five-pin bowling ball in 1952–11 years before the mouse was invented, for those (turbo-nerd gamers) that are keeping track. They used it to navigate a big-ass computerized “battlefield information system” called DATAR.

DATAR

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DATAR was so big-ass, in fact, it was discontinued due to cost after the U.S. declined to co-sponsor the project. A couple of years later we Yankees developed an almost-identical combat information system called NTDS, but with water-cooled computers and without the syrupy Canadian taint. And thus was coined the phrase “WTF?”

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About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs

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