Page last updated at 11:10 GMT, Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Muted celebration for computing

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley


The mouse's inventor, Doug Engelbart, on how the mouse got its name

The 40 years since the "dawn of interactive computing" represent a lost opportunity which has been hijacked by commercialism.

The claim was made at an event to celebrate the anniversary of the world debut of personal and interactive computing which took place in San Francisco on Dec 9 1968.

At what was dubbed "the mother of all demos", inventor Doug Engelbart also showed off the first computer mouse.

"There's been an explosion of technology but it hasn't reached the level of potential he envisioned in the early 1960's" Mr Engelbart's daughter Christina told the BBC.

"The vision people have for why they are building this technology is more towards commercialisation and maybe entertainment and getting documents to look nicer and crank them out faster.


First ever computer mouse demo

"But the vision dad (Doug Engelbart) started out with was how can you make people more dramatically effective at how they work collectively to solve important problems in order to make the world a better place?"

"That vision of how do you harness the collective intellect in very powerful ways is missing from the paradigms in how things are being developed today," said Ms Englebart who is the executive director of the Engelbart Institute.

She said the kind of problems this approach would help today include things like world poverty, infectious diseases, clean technology and world hunger.

Doug Engelbart
Mr Engelbart said "the better we get, the better we get at getting better."

"It really is a race because if these problems are increasing in complexity exponentially and if we don't find exponential solutions as to how we work together to solve these problems, then we are sunk," stated Ms Engelbart.

"Innovation just stopped"

Back in 1968, Mr Engelbart's mission at the Stanford Research Institute in developing the technology was very clear. He wanted to solve humanity's most important problems by using computers to improve communication and collaboration.

At the time computing centred on mainframe machines with their punch cards, batch processing and time sharing as opposed to Mr Engelbart's notion of a personal computer and a new way of working.

At the anniversary, held at Stanford University, some of those involved in the project expressed quite vocally their own disappointment that four decades on from that seminal moment in computer history, there is not more to celebrate.

"It wasn't how are we going to sell this technology. It was about let's make the most useful thing we can possibly make," said Jeff Rulifson of the philosophy that drove the team.


Rob Skitmore of the London Science Museum predicts the mouse will remain a dominant force despite new technologies such as touch screens.

He told the BBC "I think what happened is technology moved so fast into commercialisation that by the 1970's, innovation just stopped. I shouldn't say that but the innovation that went on on the computer was about how fast can I produce beautiful documents and that wasn't the idea. "The vision was subverted by commercialism."

That view was echoed time and time again in front of the 900 strong audience of students, alumni, researchers, scientists, engineers, executives and fans who attended this commemoration.

"We are looking back at all this with a sense of nostalgia and wondering what all these magicians were able to do and we ask ourselves "what have we got today?"" questioned Andries van Dam, Professor of computer science at Brown University who attended the original demo as a "doubting Thomas."

He answered "I would say cynically that we have a collection of tools at our disposal but they don't interoperate. We can do a lot of individual things better because there is more functionality and they work faster but they don't work together and they don't play nice together.

"For me this is the lowest common denominator"

"Just a tool"

Bill English with the mouse he made
Bill English with one of the first mice he made

The 1968 demo presaged many of the technologies we use today from personal computing to social networking.

One piece of hardware that has become almost ubiquitous following that debut is the computer mouse.

However it did not take off until Apple co-founder Steve Jobs saw it being used on the Alto machine. The company licensed it for a rumoured $84,000.

The mouse never made any money for Mr Engelbart and fellow inventor Bill English who co-ordinated the original 90 minute demonstration. Just last week the biggest producer of the product, Logitech, rolled out its one billionth mouse.

"The mouse was just a tool," said Mr English matter of factly as he held the original one he helped invent.

"If the screen was going to be your environment and the way you communicate, it was important that people had a way of pointing and interacting with the computer. It was simple, it was easy, it was accurate and you didn't have any learning curve with it and people could use it right away and that was very important," he said.

As to predictions that the mouse will soon be replaced by newer technologies such as multi-touch, facial recognition and gestures, Mr English remained unimpressed.

"The computer mouse is still the best way to point at anything with any accuracy and I don't think that will change any time soon. A lot of these technologies will augment it but the mouse will be here for a while to come," stated Mr English.


The anniversary celebration tried to get the audience into the mindset of the time by displaying old black and white photos of the SRI team at work and also by playing music from the sixties by the likes of the Beatles, Otis Redding and Scott McKenzie.

first mouse
The mouse got its name because a tail came out the end of the wooden box

And some advice to get in the mood came from the stage and Bob Sproul vice president and fellow at Sun Microsystems. "If you need more help remembering the 60's, sit back, close your eyes and inhale," he joked.

Even 40 years on, snippets of film from that 90 minute demonstration had the audience gasping, laughing and applauding.

A standing ovation for 83 year old Mr Engelbart, who was in the audience, moved him to wipe away a few tears. Audience members queued up to speak to him, get his autograph and their photograph taken with him.

And speaker after speaker paid tribute to him and the work of the 17 other people involved in the project.

But amid the nostalgia and the memories, was also a focus on the future.

"We have the information superhighway but what about the innovation superhighway? This is the grand challenge of grand challenges," suggested Ms Engelbart.

"It feels like this a window of opportunity and time for the world to wake up as dad has been saying for over 40 years.

"We are on that exponential curve of world problems and every place you turn people are really feeling it. And in this country people are feeling we have a huge potential for change with a new administration so maybe we can push onto new frontiers."

And Mr van Dam threw down the gauntlet to the business leaders of the hi-tech industry.

"I look forward to the reintegration of these various components so we can go back to the future and have this totality of a broad vision at our fingertips.

" I don't see how we 're going to get there frankly because commercial organisations are not built that way."

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