Malcolm Gladwell Takes On Steve Jobs and The Mouse


Steve Jobs told industrial designer Dean Hovey he wanted a mouse that cost $15 to build and worked on his bluejeans.

UPDATE: Gladwell debunks the old story that Jobs “stole” the Mac from Xerox PARC. See below.

In the latest edition of The New Yorker, preeminent business writer Malcolm Gladwell takes on Steve Jobs and the creation of the mouse.

The piece is called “Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation.”

Gladwell uses the origin of the Mac and how Steve Jobs allegedly “stole” the idea from Xerox PARC to explore creativity in general. Presumably, Gladwell applies his famous contrarian sensibility to the well-documented story.

[Jobs] had brought a big plastic bag full of the artifacts of that moment: diagrams scribbled on lined paper, dozens of differently sized plastic mouse shells, a spool of guitar wire, a tiny set of wheels from a toy train set, and the metal lid from a jar of Ralph’s preserves. He turned the lid over. It was filled with a waxlike substance, the middle of which had a round indentation, in the shape of a small ball. “It’s epoxy casting resin,” he said. “You pour it, and then I put Vaseline on a smooth steel ball, and set it in the resin, and it hardens around it.” He tucked the steel ball underneath the lid and rolled it around the tabletop. “It’s a kind of mouse.”

The abstract of the piece is here; but be warned, it just makes the story more confusing. There’s also a slideshow: The Birth of the Mouse. It includes some fascinating details about the first mouse:

[Designer Dean] Hovey recalled Jobs’s description of his design specs: “‘Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans.’ ”

The entire piece is available online to New Yorker subscribers. Perhaps it’s time to get your subscription.

UPDATE: Using the mouse as an example of innovation at work, Gladwell describes how Doug Engelbart’s first mouse in the ’60s resembled a bulky rollerskate. PARC took Engelbart’s concept, but produced a gold-plated mouse that cost $300 and was hard to use. Apple’s one-button mouse was simplified and cheap to make.

“PARC was building a personal computer. Apple wanted to build a popular computer… For an actual product you need htreat and constraint – and the improvisation and creativity necessary to turn a gold-plated three-hundred-dollar mouse into something that works on Formica and costs fifteen dollars.”


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