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Friday, October 02, 2009, 04:00 am PT (07:00 am ET)

Apple plans Mighty Mouse makeover

Twenty five years after introducing the world to mouse-based computing, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is now hoping to deliver significant advances to the input device by applying the company's extensive research and development in multitouch technologies, AppleInsider has learned. 

Apple's latest twist on the venerable mouse could arrive as early as this year, possibly in conjunction with the imminent release of new iMacs, the company's flagship desktop computer. Existing iMacs are reported to be in short supply in many locations, according to people familiar with Apple's retail channel inventory. 

The company's existing standalone Mighty Mouse product, which ships in both wired and wireless models, is also currently on a two week backorder through at least one of the Mac maker's direct fulfillment channels. Mighty Mouse availability hasn't been an issue within the past two years, people who deal in those channels say. This could be seen as further evidence that a new mouse may be hiding around the corner. 

Designing a mightier mouse

Apple's next mouse is expected to do away with the Mighty Mouse's problematic mechanical roller ball, using expanded touch sensitive housing and "multipoint touch detection mechanism" technologies described in recent patent filings. 

Given Apple's patented "inertia feedback" used on the iPod and iPhone, where item lists bounce when reaching the top or bottom and scrolling speeds accelerate in response to how the user touches the surface, the next Apple mouse is similarly expected to wed new hardware with sophisticated software to deliver an intuitive new feel in scroll navigation.

Should the new mouse arrive alongside revamped iMacs, it's also likely to drop the white plastic finish it formerly used to match previous Mac models. Informed speculation would suggest the new hardware could sport an aluminum appearance to fit in with Apple's current lineup of desktop computers and notebooks, though those familiar with the product have not commented either way. People familiar with the company's plans have indicated the new iMac will eventually receive a retooled IR remote that drops white plastic for an aluminum finish. 

Thinking outside the mouse

The majority of Apple's systems are now notebooks with integrated, multitouch trackpads. Apple's investments in touch sensitive navigation have shown up in products from the iPod click-wheel to the iPhone and the multitouch trackpads on recent MacBook models. The existing Mighty Mouse only offers rudimentary touch sensitivity in comparison, featuring a two sided virtual button top that can be configured to respond to clicks either as a single button device or as separate right and left clicks. 

Other types of Mighty Mouse navigation, including scrolling, require physical manipulation of the Mighty Mouse scroll ball button, a problematic mechanical device that appears to be salvaged from a previous decade. The soft rubbery button picks up dirt and oils and quickly becomes an irritating frustration to use, often losing responsiveness.

While Apple has recently delivered regular new advancements in sophisticated multitouch trackpad technologies for its MacBook line, its standard mouse for desktop users has only leisurely followed industry trends, picking up features such as Bluetooth wireless or optical LED and then laser tracking, for example. The arrival of a smarter mouse appears set to reverse that lagging pace of innovation. 

30 years of mouse evolution
 

The modern, mundane Apple mouse

Apple's last several generations of mice have delivered disappointment, stretching back to the original iMac's "hockey puck" mouse introduced in 1998. While unveiling that year's iMac, Jobs called it "the coolest mouse on the planet." In reality, the round device was so impossibly difficult to orient in the hand that it helped spawn a third party flood of replacement devices, resulting in what many credit for kickstarting the shift to USB peripherals. 

 

Apple then stunned professionals by retaining the iMac's candy colored hockey puck mouse (with its old fashioned roller ball) for use with its high end Power Macs. In 2000, it finally shipped a more upscale version called the Apple Pro Mouse, using classier clear plastics in solid white or black, along with optical LED tracking that finally got rid of the dirt-collecting trackball.

A flat white Mighty Mouse appeared in 2005, with four independently programmable buttons: the top roller ball button, a thumb-and-finger pinch button, and two sensitive areas for right and left clicks, which could be combined to result in a simple one button mouse. A revised Bluetooth version shipped in 2006 with more accurate laser optical tracking.

On page 2 of 2: Steve Jobs: mouse advocate