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9th December

The humble computer mouse celebrates its 40th anniversary today.

On 9 December 1968 hi-tech visionary Douglas Engelbart first used one to demonstrate novel ways of working with computers.

The first mouse that Dr Engelbart used in the demo at the Fall Joint Computer Conference (FJCC) was made of wood and had one button.

Much of the technology shown off in the demo inspired the creation of the hardware and software now widely used.


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I used to explain to new computer users that the graphical user interface and the mouse that powers it (WIMP - windows, icons, mouse and pointer) was invented by researchers at Xerox's Palo Alto research centre, but that it couldn't be made to work with the computers of that time. Later some of those researchers ended up working for Apple on the Lisa project (I went to the UK launch of the Lisa, which was a very exciting product, but too expensive for UK buyers) which of course spawned the first Macintosh. And many years later Microsoft produced Windows, a (supposedly) multi-tasking bolt-on to their crippled single-tasking operating system, and hailed it as the greatest thing since sliced bread, despite the fact that it wasn't a patch on the now well-established Mac system. And it wasn't until 1995 that Microsoft (arguably) got Windows to work right. The Apple Lisa was released January 1983.

So naturally, 95% of the world's desktop computers run Windows...

Why is it that the 'market forces' that some economists tout as the panacea to all ills seem to promote the success of technically inferior products over the real genius products?

In the case of Windows, I blame IBM. It was IBM who threw their weight behind Microsoft in the early days, after falling out with Digital Research over CP/M. And the nervous nellies of the business fraternity bought into desktop computing with an IBM badge confidently when they would never have bought Apple or Commodore or Radio Shack or Acorn or any of the other brilliant designs from smaller manufacturers. IBM's machine was seriously flawed as was its operating system, and although all the killer apps at the time, like VisiCalc, ran under CP/M (so IBM launched a machine with no apps), people were keen to buy IBM so the software developers came in line.

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I blame AT&T. Their 3B1 was such a wretched product that users who were exposed to them never wanted to have anything to do with UNIX never, ever again.

The 3B1 (or PC7300) was based on a Motorola chip and ran a version or UNIX V with a buggy GUI. You really couldn't do much of anything unless you got under the hood and used the UNIX shell. Unfortunately big chunks of the operating system were missing because they were sold as modules and federal contracts being what they were only the components deemed absolutely necessary were purchased. The usefulness of the system was directly proportional to the RAM available which of course was also minally configured.

Tools UNIX vets took for granted like PERL simply weren't there.

Soon the PC7300s were rotated to rookies, temps and people in the office who were out of favor with management. As soon as possible they jammed the backrooms where surplus equipment went to rot.

It was a good idea rushed to market before the technology and software were ready which set UNIX and open systems back at least a decade.

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