Douglas Engelbart and the evolution of the computer mouse

We’re back to computers today, as we celebrate the birthday of Douglas Engelbart (born 30 Jan 1925), the American electrical engineer and human-computer interface specialist who developed the first practically useable prototype of the computer mouse.

The computer mouse has become such a ubiquitous part of a home computer setup that its quite difficult to think back to the time when computers didn’t come stock standard with a mouse. Of course early command-line computers had no real need for a mouse, given that they didn’t have a graphical user interface, and there was no need for a device to select different objects on the screen.

The classic Apple mouse - a masterpiece of user-friendly industrial design.(© All Rights Reserved)
The classic Apple mouse – a masterpiece of user-friendly industrial design.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Engelbart’s computer interfacing device, that he developed with his colleague Bill English at the Stanford Research Institute, basically consisted of a handheld ‘box’ with two wheels protruding at the bottom, pointed perpendicular to each other so that, when the device was moved along a flat surface, the rotation of the wheels translated into motion along the horisontal and vertical axes on the screen. The device became referred to as a mouse because of its size and because the electric cable running out behind the device resembled a mouse’s tail.

Even though Engelbart patented his computer mouse (on Nov 17, 1970), this was a case where the invention was so far ahead of its time that the patent ran out before the device found widespread application in personal computers. Hence he never received any royalties for his groundbreaking invention.

The mouse was actually only one of several different devices that Engelbart experimented with to enable humans to easier interact with computers, including a joystick-type device, as well as head-mounted devices attached to the chin or nose. Personally I am quite relieved that the hand-held mouse won out – imagine if we all sat around staring at our computer screens with pointing devices attached to our noses. Then again, we may not have thought it funny – if you think how absurd ear-mounted bluetooth mobile phone headsets look (a personal pet-hate of mine!), perhaps a nose-mounted computer pointer wouldn’t have been that odd…

Of course by today the computer mouse has become a complex, highly sophisticated device, with variants ranging from multi-functional gaming mice that look like something out of a science fiction fantasy, to Apple’s classic smooth and simple design masterpieces.

And all this thanks to Doug Engelbart’s visionary work more than 40 years ago.

Regarding programmers, monkeys and probability

Today, 7 January, we celebrate International Programmers Day. According to some sources, at least – there is also a Programmer’s Day happening on the 256th day of the year, 12/13 September, depending on whether it is a leap year. In a way the 256th day option makes more sense, as 256 is 2 to the power 8, which is the number of distinct values that can be represented with an eight-bit byte – something sure to amuse the programmers among us.

What makes 7 January an amusing date for a day dedicated to programmers, is that this is also the day that the French mathematician Emile Borel (7 Jan 1871 – 3 Feb 1956) was born. Borel, a pioneer in the field of probability theory, is the man who proposed the famous thought experiment that if you allow a monkey to randomly hit a typewriter’s keys, it will, with absolute statistical certainty, eventually type every book in the French National Library (known as the ‘infinite monkey theorem’).

The infinite monkey theorem, as applied to programming. (© All Rights Reserved)
The infinite monkey theorem, as applied to programming. Considering the quizzical look on his face, I’d say he’s just created some low-level assembly code…
(© All Rights Reserved)

Applied to programmers, does this mean that, if we let a monkey loose on a computer keyboard it will, given enough time, eventually write the code for every operating system and every computer programme ever developed?

I guess so… Which would support the often held opinion that people in IT get paid way too much… 🙂

Just kidding – of course I have the utmost appreciation for the computer whizzes who keep all the systems around us going. And when you think about it, there is almost no aspect of our daily lives that does not, in some way or another, have an aspect of programming involved in it. We certainly live in an age where IT is super-pervasive, and as such it makes perfect sense dedicating a day (or two) to celebrating the contributions programmers make in our lives. Good on you, each and every one!

Celebrating International Shareware Day

Today is a day to celebrate thousands of computer programmers frantically coding away at their latest killer app, who end up essentially giving it away in the hope that someone will show enough appreciation to pay them for it – today, the second Saturday of December, is International Shareware Day.

Celebrating all the programmers coding away at the next useful app.(© All Rights Reserved)
Celebrating all the programmers coding away at the next useful app.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Unlike open source software, ‘shareware’ is a proprietary software model – the author retains ownership of the programme and the code, and often scaled down versions of commercial software applications are released as shareware. While you can use the software without paying, the idea is that if you find it useful, you should pay, or upgrade to the full, non-free version of the software. Some shareware are also only made available for a limited trial period, after which users are expected to pay to continue using it.

Another concept closely related to shareware is ‘freeware’, where the software is made available for free without an expectation of payment, except perhaps for donations to the author.

The first piece of software called ‘freeware’ was PC-Talk, a telecommunications programme created by Andrew Fleugelman in 1982, while the term ‘shareware’ was first used with the programme PC-Write (a word processing tool), released by Bob Wallace in early 1983. So in a way this year effectively represents the 30th anniversary of freeware/shareware.

Very few shareware and freeware downloads are ever paid for, meaning that the chances of sustaining yourself on shareware income remains fairly slim. This is sad, because this mode of software production has resulted in some wonderful software tools being made available to users around the globe – virus protection software, all kinds of computer utilities, and much more. Lack of financial returns also means that many shareware and freeware projects are abandoned, not updated or not supported.

International Shareware Day was created to remind shareware users about the value they have gained through their use of these programmes. And to perhaps inspire them, in the spirit of the upcoming festive season, to send off a few payments to the authors of their favourite shareware apps.

It may not happen, but it’s worth a try…

Techies Day and the growing need for skilled high-tech workers

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a ‘techie’ is defined as “a person who is very knowledgeable or enthusiastic about technology and especially high technology”. And today, I am told, is Techies Day, launched in 1999 by Techies.com. Yes indeed, when no-one else bothered to create a day for appreciating the techies, they just did what any good techie would do and created it themselves. Gotta love a techie!

All jokes aside, this is the day to take some time to acknowledge and appreciate all the ways in which your life is made easier thanks to a baffling array of techies – the guys and gals who keeps the telecommunications systems communicating; who ensure the computing systems keep computing; who keep our ever increasing collection of digital devices up and running; who enable the blogging platforms to keep on supporting the 433,743 bloggers, 1,058,607 new posts, 1,283,513 comments, and 246,669,831 words posted every day (and that’s just on our favourite platform).

Take time today to show some love and appreciation for the techies in your life.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Internationally there’s an ever growing demand for qualified technology workers, and a growing recognition of the need for initiatives aimed at drawing more bright young people into technology domains. In a ComputerWeekly report from April this year, the lack of IT talent is described as a ‘global issue’ by recruitment group Hays, who has pinpointed IT as “one of the top ‘hard skills’ in demand” in their list of top ten skills that are globally lacking. The article further points out that, while international outsourcing is still a popular option for many companies to address their shortages, there is a trend to rather try to attract the skills to develop projects in-house.

The situation is no different down here in New Zealand. As reported in the NZ Herald, Minister of Economic Development Steven Joyce , while addressing the Nethui Internet Conference, said “There is a worldwide shortage of ICT skills currently and it’s not getting any better and New Zealand is part of that. One of the challenges for all of us, particularly those of you who are evangelists for the digital revolution, is actually to get schools, people, students, families to get more focused on ICT careers because there is a danger that the focus on the skills, that will be required, lags [behind] the opportunities.”

The ICT domain keeps expanding, requiring more and more techies to keep it up and running.
(© All Rights Reserved)

So, the next time you interact with a techie and he/she looks a tad stressed, have some sympathy – they’re probably overstretched and can do with some appreciation. Too often these days we consider the IT systems and connectivity supporting our lives a right and not a privelege, and we get righteously peeved off when things go wrong and take it out on the first line of support we hit.

Today, instead of fighting, show some love for the techies in your life.

Happy Techies Day, everyone.