For everyone who works in computers, today is a significant date. It’s the 40th anniversary of the day when Douglas Engelbart, one of the industry’s great visionaries, gave an audience of geeks at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco their first glimpse of the technological future that we all now inhabit.
In the last few weeks, the mainstream media has been reporting this as the public debut of the computer mouse, which indeed it was. But the truth is that the mouse was really just a sideshow that day. The other innovations Engelbart unveiled included hypertext, object addressing, dynamic file linking, and shared-screen collaboration involving two people at different sites communicating over a network using audio and video. Engelbart was speaking in San Francisco but he was showing, via a video link, what was happening on the computers in his lab 64km away. And in those days, that was a very big deal.
It was, as one attendee, Steven Levy, wrote: “The mother of all demonstrations ... The audience stared into the maw of cyberspace. Engelbart, with a no-hands mike, talked them through it, a calming voice from Mission Control ... The coup de grace came when control of the system was passed, like some digital football, to the Augmentation team at the Stanford Research Institute, 40 miles [64km] down the peninsula. Amazingly, nothing went wrong. Not only was the future explained, it was there, as Engelbart piloted through cyberspace at hyperspeed.”
This was 1968. Bill Gates was 12; Steve Jobs was 13.
The computer mouse was a key element in the icon-based interface that we now take for granted, and it was a great success in its day (though Engelbart did not make a cent from it). Last week, for example, Logitech, a leading computer accessories manufacturer, announced that it had shipped its billionth mouse. “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.”
Up to a point, Mr Dooley. What about paperclips, Bic pens and Faber-Castell pencils, to name just three? But it may be that the mouse has had its day. It’s not much use with an iPhone, and no good at all when it comes to controlling a video wall. The industry is moving towards new interfaces controlled by touch, gestures, voice and maybe even eye movements. In 40 years, Logitech’s latest gesture-based MX Air Mouse will doubtless look as quaint as Engelbart’s wood-encased wheel-mouse does today.
Not that he will give a damn. Engelbart has always viewed technology as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The vision that has driven him since he was a radar technician in the US army in World War II is the idea that computers offer a way of augmenting human intelligence — power-steering for the mind. That’s why his Stanford lab was called the “Augmentation Lab.” He and his team created the mouse-driven interface to make computers easier and more intuitive to use.
In that, at least, they were partially successful. Computers are easier to use today than they were four decades ago. But not much. Most of the world still uses Microsoft Windows — an interface that requires users to press “Start” in order to switch off their computers. And not only do “documents” appear on their virtual “desktops” — so too does the trash can. No wonder technophobes think that computer enthusiasts are weird. They are.