COMMENT: Computer peripheral powerhouse Logitech is working to get some PR mileage out of a milestone event — since letting the first one scamper into the retail market in 1985, the company has now shipped 1 billion computer mice.

Pretty impressive, even if all the economic recovery plan numbers have sapped “billion” of some of its impact. “It’s rare in human history that a billionth of anything has been shipped by one company,” Logitech’s general manager Rory Dooley told the BBC. “Look at any other industry and it has never happened.” OK, members of paper clip and toothpick industries, among others, might want to quibble, but we’ll let it slide.

 The larger question that arises on this occasion is: Whither the mouse? Is it within a relatively few years of extinction, as some experts believe, to be supplanted by interfaces using touch, voice, movement and facial expressions? “Just look forward five years and computer screens will be built into the walls of our homes and that would make it difficult to drive with a mouse,” says Gartner analyst Steve Prentice. “That’s where all the new technology like multitouch and facial recognition comes in. This is where the computer stops being a computer and becomes part of a building.” Prentice’s timetable may be off, but regardless of the pace of interface advancement, Dooley sees many happy years ahead for the mouse.

“The challenge with these new technologies,” he said, “is going to be will you touch a screen that is two feet away from you a thousand times a day? Is touch accurate enough to let you get into the cell of a spreadsheet? Those are just some simple questions we believe will not necessarily be answered by the touch interface of tomorrow.”

That billionth mouse, by the way, is getting the celebrity treatment (if the celebrity is Dick Cheney). The unit, christened Billie, rolled off an assembly line in Suzhou, China, and was immediately sent on a roundabout secret journey to an undisclosed location. Logitech is inviting folks to follow online clues to deduce Billie’s whereabouts and win a prize.


All of this is serendipitously occurring as we prepare to mark the 40th anniversary of the day the mouse (and hypertext and video conferencing and cut-and-paste and …) was first rolled out in public by Doug Engelbart and team in a 90-minute presentation that lives in legend as “The Mother of All Demos.” The tools Engelbart introduced that day changed history, but they were always meant to be in service of his larger vision — the ability to tap the world’s collective intelligence for the greater good.

That goal remains elusive, but the latest advances will get a thorough airing in San Jose on Dec. 8 and 9 when the Tech Museum of Innovation, in cooperation with the MIT Museum, sponsors an event called “Program for the Future: A Summit & Workshop on Collective Intelligence.” Conference participants will get a hands-on look at some of the most promising tools in the field, and the speaker list is packed with bright lights — Engelbart himself, along with such all-stars as PC pioneer Alan Kay, Google research director Peter Norvig, professor Hiroshi Ishii of MIT’s Media Lab, Brown University professor Andy Van Dam, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and many more. Pretty much guaranteed that if you go, your brain will be close to exploding by the time you leave.

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