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Alternatively, why have only one mouse button when you can fit two into the same space?

This is a question that a friend asked me during one of those silly Mac vs PC arguments that still happen for some reason. I thought it was quite an interesting way of asking the question, and it got me thinking about why Windows (and Gnome and KDE) have gone down the route of having two mouse buttons, whereas Apple still stick to just one.

As far as I can tell, the advantages of a second mouse button are as follows:

  • Allows more context-sensitive actions to be performed. For example, right-clicking a file in Windows Explorer opens a context menu containing actions that are specific to that file
  • The ergonomics of a modern mouse lend themselves to having two fingers placed on top, so two mouse buttons is an obvious choice (of course this may be as a result of two-button mice becoming the standard and the design developing over time to facilitate this)

It seems to me that the first point is more compelling - it makes sense to have the "list of things you can do" with an object as close to the object as possible, and context menus allow this. But there must be other reasons.

I'm looking for a bit more than the usual "one mouse button is all you need, Microsoft sux" or "Apple thinks their customers are idiots" responses that seem to come up in Google, so I though I'd ask the experts!

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One is not sufficient. You can make do with one, but two definitely has advantages. –  Marjan Venema Dec 31 '13 at 19:43
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Why have 101 keys (standard keyboard) when 1 key is sufficient (morse code)? :) –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Jan 1 at 13:17
    
@MarjanVenema How can you make the claim that one is not sufficient when it clearly has been for many users for years? Apple says "Avoid providing access to features only in toolbars or contextual menus. Because toolbars and contextual menus may be hidden, the commands they contain should always be available in menu bar menus as well" which means right-click shouldn't ever be necessary at all (just a shortcut, and one that can be invoked with Ctrl-click anyway). –  Kit Grose Jan 4 at 2:13
    
@KitGrose: because it isn't. You should avoid to give access to features only through toolbars or contextual menus. But you cannot then turn around and say that because they shouldn't be the only way, you shouldn't have them at all because the commands they contain are available by other means. Plus: who are they to limit my choices? Why shouldn't I also have a contextual menu? They are a perfect place for common commands to make it easier for infrequent users that would not have the shortcuts in their muscle memory. –  Marjan Venema Jan 4 at 12:58
    
@MarjanVenema I think the disagreement comes from an apparent difference in the meaning of "sufficient"; where I think of it as the minimum required to be useful (and thus two buttons as a nice-to-have, not a requirement), and you seem to feel that sufficient means for optimal usefulness. I think we both agree that contextual menus are useful; I just don't feel that my grandparents benefit much from needing to be careful where on the mouse they click when targeting links etc. –  Kit Grose Jan 4 at 15:17

3 Answers 3

There was a discussion in Slashdot forums back in 2005 about why Apple makes a one-button mouse.

It seems like the primary design decision was to remove the confusion among the average computer user for remembering which button to click and therefore increasing intuitive usage of the Apple user interface.

The article states:

Apple is always concerned with creating a user experience that is as intuitive as possible. Giving the average person a right mouse button is like giving a bald man a comb.

The one button is not necessarily a disadvantage, as users can engage with similar actions in a different way:

Apple's "one button" mouse has five buttons. It's just that three of the buttons are on the keyboard, and one is based on timing:

  • Click
  • Double-click (the equivalent of the third button on Xerox original design)
  • Control-click (the equivalent of the second button)
  • Command-click (the equivalent of the third button on Sun's original 3-button layout)
  • Alt-click (the equivalent of the third button on many X11 apps)
  • Shift-click

The Slashdot discussion also touches upon the development side:

One advantage to using the keyboard modifiers for the mouse clicks is that a meticulously designed application can provide visual clues about what will happen if a modified click is performed ahead of time. For example, when the Control key is down, Apple's Finder decorates the cursor with a small menu graphic to indicate the availability of the contextual menu.

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While I understand the argument for the learning experience having only one mouse button is still a disadvantage to me. With two button mice, ctrl-click can and often does have a different meaning from the second button! And that applies to all other combinations (up to and including ctrl-shift-alt-click). –  Marjan Venema Dec 31 '13 at 19:43
    
@MarjanVenema When does ctrl+click have a different meaning than right-click on a Mac? I can't think of any at all. –  Kit Grose Jan 1 at 1:40
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Perhaps the difference is in one-handed vs two-handed techniques. The world is predominantly right-handed and many of those individuals have finer motor skills on the right hand vs left hand. –  katychuang Jan 1 at 6:53
    
@KitGrose: Of course not on a Mac :-) on Windows it can and does. –  Marjan Venema Jan 1 at 12:52
    
@KitGrose: Marjan is right. Take an Excel spread-sheet for example: ctrl+click and right-click have very different functionalities -- ctrl+clicking allows you to select multiple cells in an unordered fashion, while right-clicking on a cell brings up the context menu for it. (Atleast this is the behaviour I see in Windows. How's it in the MS Office for Mac?) –  SNag Jan 1 at 18:30

As far as I can tell my old magic mouse for my Mac reacts as there where two button to push, even if it lokked like one (or none). So I used the right-click feature on my Mac with great success.

Thus, two buttons are better than one, even for Apple

enter image description here

This is an evolution from the first ever computer mouse, which only had one button

enter image description here

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I don't think you can look at the mouse without looking at the whole interface:

The early (1980s) Mac interface was so designed that the two operations of clicking and dragging would enable the user to operate the interface.

Microsoft Windows had a different interface and (as far as I can remember) always used a two button mouse as right clicking was required as part of the usage of the interface.

I've a feeling that Apple introduced 'contextual menus' later on as a reaction to them being available in Windows.

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