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Apple's Buttonless Mouse Came From Steve Jobs' Misunderstanding, Says Former Design Exec


Abraham Farag, former Senior Mechanical Engineer of Product Design, relates the birth of Apple's button-free mouse and how Steve Jobs angrily mandated its construction.

It was all borne from a mistake.

Abraham Farag, Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) former Senior Mechanical Engineer of Product Design, spoke with Cult of Mac about the origin of Apple's buttonless mouse and how then-CEO Steve Jobs mistook an unfinished mock-up as the future of the computer's most ubiquitous accessory.

Currently the owner of Sparkfactor Design, a product-development consultancy, Apple hired Farag in 1999 to remedy a bit of a misstep in many people's minds. He was charged with developing the first Apple mouse to follow the poorly received, candy-colored "hockey puck" mouse that was shipped alongside the original iMac. Small and horribly fitted to any human's hand, the iMac mouse was difficult to orient correctly and led to much frustration.

As such, Farag and his team had nowhere to go but up, however they weren't prepared for the direction in which they were told to go by an all-powerful being.

They designed six prototypes with the buttons and seams in the plastic perfectly cut out and colored as intended. But at the last minute, the team chose to include a seventh design which was inspired by the look of the mouse that preceded the dreaded "hockey puck." However, they hadn't yet sketched out the mouse buttons before it had been spotted by Jobs.

Passing by the six original prototypes, the CEO's eyes fell on the design which, as Farag put it, "looked like a grey blob."

"That's genius," Jobs said. "We don't want to have any buttons."

And the team had their unfinished model to design.

After some harried discussion, the team concocted a way for a computer mouse to work without any buttons: make the entire mouse the button. The Apple Pro Mouse, as it was called upon release, allowed the user to lightly press down on top of the casing to register a click. The Pro Mouse also ditched the dust-collecting ball underneath a standard mouse in favor of an LED for fully solid-state optical tracking. "As far as I'm aware, we were the first consumer company to do that," Farag said. "There may have been other research projects looking into it, but we were the first to be shipping an actual product."

While regarded as the sleekest mouse to date, the design team realized that even the most well-designed operating system benefitted from at least two buttons to function and went about perfecting a multibutton mouse as a follow-up. The story goes that the team met with Jony Ive, Apple's head of marketing and VP of Engineering, to go over some potential prototypes for such a mouse.

That's when Jobs dropped by.

Once he realized what they were discussing, Jobs -- in his usual callous manner -- asked, "What morons have you working on this project?"

Farag told Cult of Mac that he dared reply, "Well, this was asked for by the marketing division. It's a multibutton mouse. It's been approved through Apple's process channels, and so we've been working on it."

Jobs' response was simple. "I'm Marketing," he said. "It's a marketing team of one. And we're not doing that product." And that was the end of that.

In retrospect, Farag understands Jobs' position. The late CEO didn't want to embrace a design style that made an Apple mouse a "me-too" product. With a dead-simple interface, it also forced OS designers to develop an equally clean and dead-simple UI.

"What changed his mind was that he felt that users were finally ready to embrace an interface that had contextual menus and multiple buttons that did different things," Farag explained. "But while he was going to accept that, he wasn't going to accept a mouse that looked like anyone else's."

Ironically, by the time Jobs was ready for a multibutton mouse -- and in turn, the design team was "ready" -- technology had progressed to allow capacitive sensors that would register a click with a touchpad "tap," Thus was born the Apple Mighty Mouse which evolved into the Magic Mouse.

While there are many users, gamers in particular, who shy away from Apple's buttonless offerings in favor of form-fitted, multibuttoned mice, Jobs' persnickety vision led to the shiny and smooth Magic Mouse we have today.

Now that's a mistake with some legs.
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