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Go backArticlesThe riddle of the right mouse button

Reprinted from PC Magazine, January 14, 1992, pp. 81-82.

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.
This image can be zoomedOne 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.
Will the right mouse button find its true calling or is it doomed to extinction?

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. |

Michael J. Miller

Page added on 14th December 2004.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.