Reprinted from PC Magazine, January 14, 1992, pp. 81-82.
Will the right mouse button find its true calling or is it doomed to extinction?
|One use for a right mouse button: in ObjectVision 2.0 the right mouse button brings up a menu that lets you change various properties of an object.|
As I spend more and more time using graphical environments, such as Microsoft Windows,
I find myself wondering why every mouse sold for the PC has at least two buttons when
few mainstream applications use more than one.
At least with the Macintosh and its one-button mouse everything is clear. With PCs,
most people use a two-button mouse, usually from Microsoft Corp., Logitech, or
one of the dozens of vendors who make Microsoft-compatible mice. Some people even
use a three-button mouse. And while manufacturers such as Logitech have come up
with an amazing number of variations – ranging from the head
mouse, to the left-handed mouse, to the mouse that actually looks
like a rodent – we still return to using only the left mouse
button. Microsoft, the company that redefined mouse design, even goes so far as
to make the left button twice the size of the right.
We’re still left with the riddle of the two-button mouse, however. And since
two buttons make things more complicated than one (there’s that much more
to document, for one thing), the least that software vendors could do is come
up with a use for that right mouse button.
Certainly, there are some applications that could use a second or even a third
mouse button. CAD programs and some high-end illustration packages are good
examples. And most mice are sold with special macros and control panels that
add functionality to our PCs. But we have seen limited support for the second
mouse button from the applications vendors themselves. And when vendors have
actually gone to the trouble of implementing the right mouse button into
their software, the results have rarely been consistent.
A look at some Windows applications will demonstrate what I mean.
All of Lotus Development Corp.’s new Windows applications, including
Ami Pro, Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows, and Freelance Graphics for Windows,
feature “Smart Icons” that provide short cuts for performing various
tasks. In all these packages, if you press the right mouse button on top of
a Smart Icon, the program will tell you what the icon does. That’s both
consistent and useful.
Aldus Corp. uses the mouse in a completely different fashion. Clicking the right
mouse button in either PageMaker or Persuasion for Windows will toggle
between a 100 percent view, which shows your slides or documents as they
will print, and a “fit in screen” view, which shows the whole slide
or page. Similarly, holding down the Shift key and pressing the right button will
toggle to a 200 percent, or zoomed view. This is certainly consistent between
these two packages, but it is a markedly different approach from the way
that Lotus uses the right mouse button.
Borland International may be late in delivering Windows applications, but it has
strong ideas about using the mouse, particularly the right mouse button. In the
forthcoming ObjectVision 2.0, Paradox for Windows, and
Quattro Pro for Windows, when you place your mouse on an item and click the
right mouse button, you pop up a limited menu of commands. Only those commands
that can affect what you have selected appear. In keeping with its object-oriented
push, Borland has taken to calling the selected items “objects,” and has
even gone so far as to call the right-button actions “property inspectors.”
I prefer the more recent moniker of “menus on demand;” but whatever
you call it, this approach will
make it easier to adjust things such as fonts or type alignment within a field.
King of the inconsistent
If the companies I’ve mentioned so far aren’t consistent with each other,
let’s take a look at Microsoft. Microsoft makes the Windows environment, many
popular Windows applications, and the largest percentage of the mice sold. And
Microsoft’s systems engineers will go on and on
about how important it is that applications be consistent so that people can get up
to speed more quickly in new applications.
Unfortunately, Microsoft applications to date are incredibly inconsistent in the
way they use the right mouse button.
Microsoft Excel 3.0 does not really use the right mouse button at all, but
does not seem to suffer much as a result. Microsoft Word for Windows uses
the right button mainly for a few very specialized tasks, such as selecting
a rectangular block of text or choosing a column in a table. You can use the
right button for some general functions in Word for Windows, but I doubt
most people even know about them.
Did you know that once you’ve selected something in Word for Windows
(usually with the left button), you can then move it to another location by
holding the Control key and pressing the right mouse button? I didn’t think
so. You can also copy it, by pressing Shift, Control, and the right mouse button.
PowerPoint, on the other hand, uses the right mouse button for a fundamental
task: moving selected text or graphics around on-screen. Microsoft considered this
approach (using the right button alone) in Word for Windows to move and copy
selected items, but abandoned it.
All of this is incredibly confusing. If we’re going to have a standard user
interface for things such as the F1 key to invoke on-line help, then we should have
a standard use for the right mouse, too.
Microsoft finally seems ready to agree with this. It is trying to put together a
Windows style guide that will define recommended uses for various things, including
the right mouse button. Microsoft’s current thinking is that the right mouse
button should be used for pop-up menus or “instant menus” that define
the various characteristics of selected objects. Sounds a lot like what Borland is doing.
There’s nothing wrong in that, though. Pop-up menus probably offer more flexibility
than just about anything else. A random set of additional features from each vendor
won’t solve the riddle of the right mouse button, but neither will a simple
decree by Microsoft or any other group within the industry. Instead, the solution
requires an application that implements the button so well that users will be
convinced this is the right approach.
Personally, I like both the ideas of instant help and instant menus. Who knows,
perhaps future applications can implement both. |