Today in Tedium: Is there a product that has meshed as well with the modern office as the mouse pad? The squishy, rubbery rectangle, home to a million snazzy designs and a defining piece of cubicle furniture, was (and still kinda is) like a Trapper Keeper for adults, a commodity product that was an essential accessory for computer users for decades. Even in an age where optical mice rule the roost, mouse pads are still common. So, where the heck did they come from, and where did they go? A reader, Martin Jost, posed that question to me recently. As far as where they came from, I went straight to the source. — Ernie @ Tedium
The year the mouse was invented, one of many impressive things that researcher Douglas Engelbart—he of “The Mother of All Demos“—can be credited for. In a Wired article, the late inventor noted that in experiments with other types of pointing devices, the mouse was a clear winner. “It was faster, and with it people made fewer mistakes,” he explained. Among the other things his team tried included joysticks, a knee-based mechanical pointing device, and a stylus-like device. The mouse won, but it needed a surface.
How the mouse pad came to life at the height of Mac-mania
Not to rehash history too much, but it’s worth emphasizing that the Apple Macintosh did a lot to bring computers to life, particularly the mouse. It wasn’t the first computing device to have a mouse, but it did a lot to streamline where and how it was used.
(One major difference: Unlike Douglas Engelbart, Steve Jobs made his mice with one button, rather than three.)
One thing that’s lost in all the stories about the Mac is the early ecosystem built around it. There were all sorts of accessories being made for the earliest editions of the Mac, many of dubious value, many hiding in the back pages of the earliest issues of MacWorld.
Also hiding there were some of the earliest efforts to sell mouse pads to the world—something we can thank Bob McDermand for.
McDermand doesn’t claim to be the straight-up inventor of the mouse pad—he says it’s too strong a term for what he did, and he’s heard rumors that others had the same idea slightly before he did. (The New York Times, in a 1987 roundup of computer accessories, did call him the inventor, however, so let’s give him some of that credit.)
Nonetheless McDermand, through his company Moustrak, most certainly made the mouse pad famous. He also helped to define its most famous form: The rounded rectangle of polyester on rubber that turned any surface into one perfect for a tracking device. (His company’s specific nomenclature for the objects, “Mouspad,” didn’t stick nearly as well.)
It helped that McDermand, a onetime aviation instructor who was working with the San Francisco investment banker Van Kasper & Company in the early 1980s, was in the right place at the right time.
His heart-of-Silicon-Valley job and aviation experience helped him forge friendships with Steve Wozniak (who was a fellow pilot) and Steve Jobs (who wasn’t), and through his relationship with Jobs, he got his hands on an early Mac prototype.
When he had a chance to try it out, he noticed something kind of interesting: The mousing experience varied wildly, depending on the surface.
“I took it to the office and had an oak desk there, and the mouse didn’t work very well with an oak desk,” he noted. “And I took it home, and it worked very beautifully on my glass table—I had a coffee table that was made of heavy, thick glass.”
After trying out books, sheets of paper, and other alternative surfaces, he made a realization: “I needed some type of surface that I could carry with me so it would be consistent.”
McDermand’s first efforts at building a mouse pad used formica, a hard, laminate surface that did the job, but eventually he and his collaborators stumbled on polyester—a surface that made the mouse pad flexible and, crucial to its future success, made it possible to transfer designs onto the surface. Soon enough, he was working with a rubber manufacturer and he had a side project on his hands—one that quickly required him to quit his job to focus on making mouse pads full time.
McDermand and his company Moustrak got off to a low-key start, but two things happened that quickly turned his company into a winner: First, his early ads in magazines like MacWorld (one of which is shown above), and two, a decision by Apple to distribute some of Moustrak’s early mouse pads, emblazoned with the Apple logo, to computer sellers around the country.
It wasn’t long before McDermand and his company were producing millions of mouse pads as marketing swag for companies and as branded material for companies like Disney, Paramount, and LucasFilm.
But there were some bumps along the way, particularly when the company started testing mouse pads using synthetic materials. The pads, which had ethylene in them, caused a chemical reaction in rare cases.
“They would destroy one type of furniture—lacquered desks,” he said.
(Yes, they paid thousands of dollars to fix a desk in at least one case prior to changing the formula.)
“We see no possible future commercial use for this product.”
— What McDermand claims he was told by the early computer retailer Businessland as he was attempting to sell the retailer on mouse pads for the market. Businessland later (wait for it) went out of business, the victim of a 1991 acquisition by a company that no longer exists in its initial form.
The demise of Moustrak, or when mouse pads became a commodity
“We wanted to be out there first with the best. We over-designed it, over-manufactured it, and over-printed it.“
Talking to McDermand, it becomes very clear that he’s incredibly interested in building things with a focus on quality—he doesn’t go halfway, even when it comes to mouse pads.
A 1990 ad published in the Apple II GS Buyers Guide does a great job of highlighting this focus on creating high quality products—while thumbing its nose at the competitors that didn’t follow suit.
“The truth is, while some mouse pads may look like a Moustrak,™ they aren’t built like one. As you can see, many of the best features of a genuine Moustrak Mouspad™ are actually found below the surface,” the ad states, before going into the process of how the company laminated its pads and presses those pads to the rubber.
(Part of the issue with rising competition was that Bob never patented his work with the mouse pad, something he says he regrets to a degree, but notes came out of the strongly creative Silicon Valley culture of the 1980s. “The idea of having attorneys and accountants get in the way of the creative process felt alien,” he said.)
This focus on quality likely helped the firm as it scored merchandising deals with major film companies. McDermand recalled to me the story of how, when given a piece of imperfect art from the Star Wars series, he and a couple contractors worked for long periods of time to retouch the art so that it was good enough for the average desktop—and impressed LucasFilm, who didn’t expect the questionable shot to produce such an impressive final result.
“I personally spent 50 hours, dot by dot, bringing out the tunic, it was in such poor condition. It was basically recreating what we thought was there,” he said.
The attention to detail worked to Moustrak’s advantage as it forged relationships with companies like Disney, for whom Moustrak created a colorful Mickey Mouse print, and Paramount, for whom Moustrak manufactured numerous of Star Trek-related mouse pads.
It led to some amazing mouse pads. That focus on quality, unfortunately, made it tough to compete over time. Ultimately, manufacturers from outside markets, such as China, found ways to make mouse pads for lower prices, at lower quality, and without the attention to detail that Moustrak prided itself on.
“When we were building mouse pads, we tried to build the very, very best. And I learned something that really shocked me, and that’s, in this country, if people don’t know any better, it’s all about price,” he said. “They won’t spend the extra dollar to do it properly.”
(At one point, I called the mouse pad “the phone case of the ’90s,” noting parallels between low-quality phone cases commonly sold today and the issues he ran into in the ’90s. He agreed, noting that the mouse pads people bought to replace his were “basically throwaways.“)
His firm sold off its interest in Moustrak in 1997. There’s a website at Mousetrak.net that sells mouse pads; he emphasizes that he’s not affiliated with it in any way.
The current price on Amazon for the the Razer Firefly, a high-end gaming-focused mouse pad that includes custom chroma lighting. The product represents an evolutionary shift for mouse pads, from commodity products back to high-end products for high-end devices. This shift in the market, largely driven by first-person shooters and eSports, has led to a number of manufacturers creating mouse pads designed specifically for games—check out this guy reviewing them, to get an idea.
McDermand’s follow-up business, Pyramid.net, has had no such challenges with quality losing out over mass-market production. An ISP based in the Carson City, Nevada area, the firm essentially sells a variety of options to consumers—including business-class internet access that the firm is distributing via Charter, that otherwise wouldn’t be made directly available to consumers.
The two-decade-old company, which he started with his longtime girlfriend Tiffany Mills, may never have the reach of the millions of mouse pads his company sold, but he talks about it in very idealistic terms–how he got into the internet business essentially to encourage the spread of information.
He brings up his politics and philosophical mindset when discussing all this, but he also brings up a familiar point: his focus on quality.
“If you look at our ISP, all of our circuits, everything we do, is the best that can be done, and I’d rather serve a small niche market than a broad one,” he says.
Don’t expect him to cut corners anytime soon.