Bill Atkinson

How Apple made the mouse

May 9, 2011: 8:04 AM ET

Malcom Gladwell deconstructs the Mac's creation myth in the current New Yorker

Source: The New Yorker

The myth -- repeated ad nauseam by Apple (AAPL) naysayers -- is that Steve Jobs stole the ideas behind the Macintosh from Xerox's (XRX) Palo Alto Research Center.

The truth is that he paid for them -- with 100,000 shares of his company a year before its initial public offering.

The deeper truth, which Malcom ("The Tipping Point") Gladwell explores at length in the current issue of the New Yorker, is that Jobs had no interest in reproducing the work the team at Xerox PARC had done.

Jobs knew that the demo he and Bill Atkinson were given that day in 1979 -- Atkinson with his nose pressed almost against the screen, Jobs pacing around the room in an excited state -- represented the seeds of a computer revolution. But also knew that it was fatally flawed at many levels, starting with the three-button mouse that cost $300 and broke down within two weeks. Gladwell writes:

"The difference between direct and indirect manipulation—between three buttons and one button, three hundred dollars and fifteen dollars, and a roller ball supported by ball bearings and a free-rolling ball—is not trivial. It is the difference between something intended for experts, which is what Xerox PARC had in mind, and something that's appropriate for a mass audience, which is what Apple had in mind. PARC was building a personal computer. Apple wanted to build a popular computer."

It's a story that's been told before, but Gladwell spins it well with lots of new detail and color, including how Apple's first prototype mice were constructed out of butter dishes, spools of guitar wire, toy train wheels and roller balls taken from underarm deodorant sticks.

The piece is available free to subscribers on the iPad as part of a deal with Apple announced Monday. Like Time Inc., Condé Nast has used a Steve Jobs story as a lure to enlist new subscribers.

The image above is taken from a slide show of early mouse prototypes that the New Yorker has posted here.

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