How Steve Jobs Invented The Computer Mouse By Stealing It From Xerox

How Steve Jobs Invented The Computer Mouse By Stealing It From Xerox

Is there a difference between ripping off and inventing? Not when by ripping it off you make it practical, and for all practical persons, Steve Jobs effectively invented the first modern computer mouse in the mid-70s… by stealing it from Xerox.

In the latest episode of NPR’s All Things Considererd, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story about how Steve Jobs first brought the mouse to Apple. It’s a fantastic look inside Steve’s brain, and how he can reduce a complicated concept down to its essence for mass consumption.

According to Gladwell, when Steve Jobs visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in the late 1970’s, he was amazed by what he saw: a demonstration of a new three-button computer mouse.

The only problem? It cost $300. Realizing that this would be the perfect interface innovation for his Apple Computer, Jobs took the concept to industrial designer Dean Hovey, who “improved” the mouse by dropping two of its buttons… and, along with them, the mouse’s build price, which sank to just $15.

Obviously, Apple’s decision to favor just a single mouse button has been a contentious one. To this day, it’s one of the first snarky comments Windows users like to ignorantly drop when you say you’re a Mac user. In fact, Apple’s single mouse button aesthetic is commonly leveled as an example as to how Cupertino’s obsession with simple interfaces can be taken too far.

When you actually hear Gladwell explain how the single button mouse came about, though, the genius of the decision really clicks. Not only is a single button mouse an easier interface to introduce to users either new to computers or used to text-only input, but it dropped the build price of the mouse to a level where every consumer could afford to buy one.

And why was it so important for every Apple Computer owner to have a mouse? So Steve Jobs could unveil his other big new product inspired by his Xerox Labs visit: the Macintosh, and its GUI-based OS. Genius.

For more information on Steve Jobs’ historic visit to Xerox in the 70’s, read Malcolm Gladwell’s fantastic article in this week’s New Yorker.

Related
  • Pornstarwife

     HEY! You can’t prove anything. Steve was framed!

  • Kickstand

    I have found that some  Windows users are confused by the two-button mouse; the concept of a dominant click point and secondary click point is somewhat unintiutive. I remember supporting one executive in particular who would always ask “right-click or left-click?” in response to any instruction about clicking, to the point where it became an office joke. The Mac sidesteps this question by just having one button (but OSX has always supported two buttons for those who want to buy a two-button mouse).

  • jnjnjn3

    You cannot steal an idea because it cannot be owned.

    J.

  • shockme

    Steve just loves reducing part counts. Now that he’s dumped the keyboard AND mouse, he’ll go after the on switch and the power cable.

  • brownlee

    Apple would beg to differ with their thousands of software patents. 

  • TheMacAdvocate

     Nice title. Hope it helps your hit count. 

  • TheMacAdvocate

     Nice title. Hope it helps your hit count. 

  • Blayne

     There has been a lot of ink and electrons spilt over this subject and to this day nobody seems to care enough to actually get it right. Instead of using a headline friendly term like “ripped off” I suggest using the more accurate term: licensed. 

  • scotts13

     Um, no. Nobody stole anything, you little click-chaser you. Xerox was paid quite nicely for the presentations given to the Apple staff. True, the Xerox engineers would have preferred THEIR company make products based on the idea, not Apple… Oh wait, they did – and sold about a dozen of them.

  • jnjnjn3

    I think you cannot speak for Apple (on this matter).

    J.

  • AdamC

     Pathetic headline as usual from brownlee just to grab hits. If Jobs is a thief the brownlee is a whore.

  • Brett

    Douglas Englebart patented the mouse years prior to its use by Xerox.

    Upon visiting Xerox, Steve clearly recognized that GUI was the future, and that a pointing device would be necessary.  Apple didn’t “steal” or “rip off” the mouse, nor do they claim to have invented it themselves.  They did however expend significant R&D to refine and improve the mouse, and make it affordable for the Macintosh.  Most importantly, they were the first to popularize use of the mouse.Initially, Apple suffered much derision from the “command-line” crowd who didn’t appreciate the GUI and called the Mac a toy.  Years later, when Windows (kind of) caught up to the Mac, the anti-Apple critics had come to accept the mouse and moved on to other issues. Even though they grudgingly admit that Apple was right to adopt the GUI, petulant haters still like to claim that Apple stole it.  They are wrong, of course.

    Apple does do original R&D, but they also have a knack for refining existing ideas who’s time has come.  There were MP3 players prior to the iPod, but none had the unique combination of small size, high capacity, fast downloading, and simple UI that Apple came up with.  There were touch screen devices and multitouch demonstrations before the iPhone, but it was Apple that perfected the technology.  There were tablets before the iPad, but Apple understood that ease of use, light weight, fast performance, and battery life were more important than support for running legacy desktop applications.

    Time and time again, Apple shows that they understand what is essential in product, and they have the ability and courage to use innovative technology to create groundbreaking products.

  • Deocliciano Okssipin Vieira

     Indeed!

    But hey, com is a biz and we all lie gossiping’.

    Aren’t we all?

  • Deocliciano Okssipin Vieira

    He ment an idea literally. 

    Execution is complementary and very important.

    L. da Vinci is given credit for things developed by others.Things he build upon.

  • tiresius

     Suggest that the author reread Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the May 16, 2011 New Yorker and find a better phrase than “stealing it from Xerox” for his headline.  Or listen to his discussion of this same issue on NPR that same day.Suggest that the author reread Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the May 16, 2011 New Yorker and find a better phrase than “stealing it from Xerox” for his headline.  Or listen to his discussion of this same issue on NPR that same day.

  • Jackson Myers

     Didn’t Xerox agree to let Jobs use the ideas he saw at Xerox? I thought there was an agreement on that. I’d like to read the full text of the New Yorker article but unfortunately I don’t subscribe and I haven’t been able to find a copy of it.

  • obamapacman

    Exactly. Here an article from 2010 about it:http://obamapacman.com/2010/03

  • jsk

     Not only does the development of the mouse pre-date the work mentioned at Xerox PARC, but the mouse, windows, and the GUI that followed at Apple was for the Lisa, not the Mac.

  • haineux

    Engelbart’s original mouse used two wheels, rolling and dragging on the table. (Nails on chalkboard, anyone?) Xerox invented a mouse with a single rolling ball. Apple redesigned Xerox’s mouse, most importantly to reduce the cost from $300 to $30. (Hardly “theft.”)

    Sometimes, design is about making subtle changes that are crucially important. In the case of Apple’s mouse, most of the important design is in the mechanics of the ball, the electronics, and even the way that the mouse button makes a distinctive clicking sound. This mouse design was almost unchanged for two decades.

  • haineux

     Actually, I have a much more succinct, direct point to make: Brownlee, do you really think that removing two buttons saved $285?

    That’s just silly.

  • Mile L.

    SRI invented the Mouse, not Xerox…

  • david prokop

    The mouse is approx 40 years old, it has terrible ergonomics and has caused millions of cases of carpal tunnel (RSI) injuries. The new Tablet (iPad) multi-touch display is a more natural and safer method to navigate software.

  • cleversoap

     From what I heard they (the R&D lads) were approaching desperate – PARC was churning out the modern world and the company was all about photocopiers. I know it’s a gross simplification to blame management but Jobsy (and every other company that toured, including Microsoft) jumped at what should have been obvious:
    http://unweary.com/2010/09/wha

    To say it was stealing though… well I guess I’ll just go return my iMac to Mr. Babbage’s heirs…

  • Yazoo

    Umm no…MS took from Apple.
     http://www.folklore.org/StoryV

  • cleversoap

    Eh? I was just talking about other companies jumping on Xerox’s products because Xerox clearly wasn’t keen. Apple took away the designs and concepts where as Microsoft just flat out headhunted the employees, which Apple also did.

    Actually, correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t GEM (I forget who made it) the first GUI for an MS system?

  • Nutz320

     I don’t get why people hate Brownlee. Please explain!

  • Nutz320

     There was no multitouch before Apple. Only touchscreen. Multitouch basically means when you can have multiple points of contact, Steve even says, “and we call it Multitouch” in his keynote. That’s my understanding. I may be wrong…

  • Nutz320

     Were you there?

  • Nutz320

     He said invented by stealing. He never said literally stealing. Which is evident. Of course it will be to grab clicks, they’re a business. But they still speak truth. Taking something and improving it is not “bad stealing”, but it can still be thought of as pseudo-stealing. If you get my point…

  • alexr

    You’re forgetting about FingerWorks, the company that Apple acquired to get all that multitouch tech. They were around for a while first.

  • Nutz320

     Oh yeah! You’re right.

  • John Marshall

    Other things Steve did not invent:
    - the tablet
    - the cellphone
    - the laptop
    - the pda
    - the computer

  • zeeshan munir

    there are many jobs in Pakistan that are permanent sector jobs and private sector jobs.
    peoples love to search jobs on the internet and get suitable job of their dreams.

    pakistani jobs

  • zeeshan munir

    there are many jobs in Pakistan that are permanent sector jobs and private sector jobs.
    peoples love to search jobs on the internet and get suitable job of their dreams.

    pakistani jobs

  • zeeshan munir

    there are many jobs in Pakistan that are permanent sector jobs and private sector jobs.
    peoples love to search jobs on the internet and get suitable job of their dreams.

    pakistani jobs

  • ?? ?

    he didnt steal anything .. and he was the first person who invented the computer.. but bill gate stole it

  • ?? ?

    it the same

  • Tommyn353

    He did invent: 
    -the modern day mouse.
    -App store.
    -Reinvent tablet computers (was dead market until he touched it)
    -All in one computers.

  • Tommyn353

    Amazing how apple can just take something and make it better.  They seem to do this all the time.  Why don’t other tech companies do that…?  I think because they are waiting to see what apple is going to make.  thanks Steve Jobs!

  • Chris Jolley

    Licensing involves paying, not profiting insanely from it without paying a penny..

  • Chris Jolley

    Apple users really don’t bother checking facts, do they?

    Well I guess that’s what religion is all about:

    “Apple was denied the trademark simply because it is too broad, and lacks distinctiveness to Apple alone.  As a reference, NYU’s Jeff Han has multiple mentions of Multi-Touch as a generic term in papers from 2005 and before.  Here’s his multi-touch video demonstration more than a year before Apple filed for ‘Multi-Touch’ or released the iPhone.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?f

  • Chris Jolley

    -He did not invent Apps or stores for applications.

    -My (actually modern) mouse seems to have 7 buttons with a wheel on top and a laser under its hand shaped body…  This form in the pics here is a lot more similar to the Xerox mouse than it is to the “Modern” mouse.

    -Tablet computers were not ‘reinvented’, but hundreds of millions were spent on advertising to a very loyal base..  The iPad tried to be but FAILED at being what iPods were to mp3 players.

  • Jim Elsalvador

    Apple came out with the first computer to be soled to consumers, but it was nowhere near the first made.
    If you want to get technical the first computer, the Z1 was made in 1936.

  • Jim Elsalvador

    Actually Palm was the first to implement multitouch.

  • Jim Elsalvador

    What?! all they do is dumb down already existing products so ignorant people like you can use them without thinking, then mark up the price because they made it shiny.

  • Jim Elsalvador

    Notice how that site is called folklore.org

  • Jim Elsalvador

    All in one computers are just laptops on life support, nothing innovative about that.

  • Jim Elsalvador

    Apple made the mouse with one button. Funny even newer Apple Mice (ex. MagicMouse) have 3 buttons, I know all basic PC mice have 3 buttons, so all apple did was delay the inevitable.

    Of course the MagicMouse is a multitouch track pad in the shape of a mouse but you still have right, left, and middle click on them.

  • Lauren Ebdon

    D. Englebart created the first mouse in the 60′s and Bill English made the first roller ball mouse in 1972 

  • sarid

    Doug Englebart invented the computer mouse
    Engelbart Received the patent as an assignor of SRI and latter SRI licensed it to Apple (Dalakov, 2012).
    Dalakov, G. (2012). The Mouse of Douglas Engelbart. Retrieved from http://history-computer.com: http://history-computer.com/ModernComputer/Basis/mouse.html

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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