Laptop Computers' Mice -- Exterminated By a Touch?

For those of you who consider computers a bit overwhelming, consider the mouse -- that cute-looking pointing device that moves the cursor around the screen. Even its most sophisticated operations -- called clicking and dragging -- are readily understandable. Maybe that's why the mouse, an old technology, still thrives in an industry driven by newness.

Nevertheless, the mouse is scampering into an uncertain future. A new device, called a touchpad, threatens to overtake it.

The touchpad's debut comes in portable computers, which is not surprising. Portables and mice have always had an uneasy relationship. I realized the two were headed for a split the first time I lugged a 386-class portable onto an airplane. The machine and the mouse wouldn't fit together on the tray table. I had to rub the mouse on my leg to move the cursor. I think I drew some stares.

Computer manufacturers came to my rescue with trackballs, which are essentially computer mice turned upside down. These made portables easier to use.

Still, the trackball was a compromise, so new rivals popped up. Hewlett Packard brought out a gizmo that stuck out the side of one of its portables. IBM gained a following with a knob in the center of its ThinkPad portable called the TrackPoint. The next step in this evolution is the touchpad.

For the past week, I've been using one integrated into the Sharp PC-8700 notebook. It's a nifty little rectangle in front of the space bar. Except for two buttons, there are no moving parts. The touchpad just uses what George Gerpheide, president of Cirque Corporation, likes to call ''the world's oldest pointing device'' -- the finger. Sliding one's finger along the electronically sensitized pad moves the cursor in the same direction.

Mr. Gerpheide says he invented the technology nearly a decade ago in his basement. Last year, his company and a large manufacturer, Alps Electric (USA) Inc., began marketing stand-alone touchpads, which attach to existing portables. Apple Computer was the first company to integrate the technology into a portable. Now manufacturers such as Sharp and Twinhead are doing the same thing for IBM-compatible portables.

Cirque's GlidePoint seems to be a winner. PC Magazine named it one of the best products of 1994. Its sales are doubling every four months. BIS Strategic Decisions predicts that 70 percent of notebook computers will be equipped with a touchpad by 1998.

After a week, I, too, am a believer. You can use the pad not only to point but also to click and double-click. That's far simpler than moving your hand from keyboard to trackball to trackball button. I wouldn't want to finger-paint the Mona Lisa on a touchpad. But for simple, day-to-day operations on a portable computer, it's the best integrated device I've used so far.

Still, it could be improved. It would be great to be able to sign one's name on an electronic document or draw a map using some kind of stylus, for instance, but the technology is sensitive only to the touch of a finger. New versions will allow absolute as well as relative movements, so if you touch the top right-hand corner of the pad, your cursor will jump to the same place on the screen. Alps and Cirque suggest the technology could show up in controls for other electronic devices.

No one knows what all this means for the mice attached to desktop computers. Gerpheide thinks his technology will win that market, too. Bill Ablondi of BIS is less certain. ''I would guess the mouse would be around a little longer,'' he says.

Call me sentimental, but I agree. The mouse deserves to keep his place on the desktop. It's hard to cuddle a touchpad.

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