A lot of promising input technologies have emerged in the last half decade. Wii remotes. The iOS touchscreen. Kinect. Voice search.
In light of this new competition, many have predicted the death of the mouse and keyboard. But if sales are any indication, that's not happening. "People are buying more mice and keyboards today than in years past," says Rory Dooley, senior vice president of devices at Logitech, one of the worlds largest manufacturers of computer accessories.
In fact, retail revenue from the company's input devices in fiscal year 2011 was near 2008's all-time high.
That may come as a surprise to some. After all, the keyboard is more than a century old -- older than your washer and dryer. For its part, the mouse was popularized nearly 30 years ago, even before such blasé innovations as the Web, airbags, and voicemail.
But there's good reason for the mouse and keyboard's uncanny endurance.
Above all, the pairing still trumps newer technologies when it comes to making digital goods. "Imagine working in a large Excel doc without the precision of a mouse or spending hours in front of email without the comfort of a keyboard," says Debbie Uttecht, hardware marketing manager at Microsoft. "It just doesn't add up.
Unlike more recent innovations like tablets -- which simplify how digital goods are consumed -- the mouse and keyboard are more like F-150s and Camrys than Camaros or Beemers. They're computational power tools. "The interface was developed to allow people to create content," says Dooley. "And it is still the best interface today for that purpose."
The more we digitize our lives, the greater number of tools we'll need to talk with computers.
Which explains why most nine-to-fivers still reach for them first during the workday, but are less likely to do so during "lean back" experiences on nights and weekends.
Where the mouse and keyboard fail to outmaneuver up-and-coming input devices, they often complement them. "Keyboards are being used quite often with tablets, Internet TVs, and game consoles now," Dooley adds, speaking of their continued sales. "And the mouse now works on Android-based tablets."
At some point, however, won't the mouse and keyboard eventually be replaced by better technology? If it does, it won't be anytime soon, observers say. "Even with all this change in the air, preparing a eulogy for traditional PCs is silly," says computer critic Harry McCracken of Time Magazine. "It's going to be many, many years before the last [mouse and keyboard] is powered down."
Microsoft's Uttecht agrees. "From comfort to productivity to gaming, there are certain benefits to mice and keyboards that will never be replaced," she says. "But spanning the full spectrum of computing activity - from browsing the web to gaming and working in CAD - we do not see a better alternative to mouse and keyboards in the foreseeable future."
Technology analyst Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies distances the mouse from keyboard while giving his answer. "The mouse is already on its way out," he says, "Because you can do away with it in a touch environment a lot easier than you can a physical keyboard."
That said, "the keyboard is alive and well," he adds, "at least for the next 10 years."
Dooley is a lot more confident of the combo device's future, saying it's rare for alternative technologies to ever fully replace primary ones. "Looking historically, the introduction of the mouse did not replace the keyboard, it augmented the functionality. Similarly, voice commands have not replaced the keypad on a cell phone but have complemented it."
Logitech's sales numbers seem to back Dooley more than Bajarin. Logitech sold $618 million worth of pointing devices in 2011, just a few million short of 2008's peak, and up $90 million from 2010. Those sales were made in an environment when the iPad was the hottest electronics device around.
Then again, pundits can overestimate change in the near term while undercounting it in the long. A broad generational or economic divide may emerge over the coming decades, some of which we're already seeing, says Bajarin. "The current workforce still wants keyboards, that's a fact. But it'll be interesting to see what younger generations who favor texting over email might reach for in the future."
And since the mouse and keyboard are not natural, users are required to learn them first, much like speaking a foreign language. That's not a problem for developed nations, Bajarin says, where keyboarding is widely taught in grammar school.
But what about emerging counties like Brazil, India and China, who might not be able to train the majority of their citizens in keyboarding? "A significant number may exclusively work from smartphones," Bajarin says of them, "While more formally educated Americans and Europeans continue to do business primarily with a mouse and keyboard."
Whatever role the mouse and keyboard play in our future, one thing is certain: the more we digitize our lives, the greater number of tools we'll need to talk with computers -- whether mouse, keyboard, or technology still unseen.
"Ultimately it comes down to context," Dooley concludes. "Some interfaces work better for certain activities than others, so computing devices should support multiple types of interfaces to adapt to users' needs."
Chart: Alexis Madrigal.
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