ScrollPoint: IBM's Attempt to Reinvent the Wheel, Literally
Over the years, IBM has introduced some of the greatest and most fondly-remembered peripherals in the history of the PC. Whether we’re talking about the venerable Model M, or the TrackPoint that made laptops far more intuitive at a time when they usually sacrificed too many features to truly replace desktops, it’s clear that IBM knew what they were doing in the late 20th Century. Today, however, we’re taking a look back at a product that didn’t quite develop the same kind of following.
The Scroll Wheel is Born
This story begins in 1995, when a mouse called the Genius EasyScroll (also sold as the Mouse Systems ProAgio) was released. The EasyScroll was the first mass-produced mouse with a scroll wheel. Unfortunately it looked like a 2008 Vetter ETV, so very few people actually bought one.
Because of this, it probably makes more sense to say the story begins in 1996, with the release of the original Microsoft IntelliMouse. Many things contributed to the IntelliMouse’s success, especially the fact that it featured a scroll wheel but didn’t look like someone had put their mouse in an oven. More importantly, it had a home turf advantage when it came to feature support, being a Microsoft mouse for use with a Microsoft OS. And people wonder what led to those monopoly accusations...
IBM's Big New Idea
IBM was exploring alternatives to Microsoft’s revolutionary new scroll wheel, and conducted a study on the viability of alternatives such as a mouse with pointing stick scrolling mechanism, or keyboard with a pointing stick scrolling mechanism paired with a traditional (at the time) mouse. Although they were using the old third-gen TrackPoint, the focus groups loved the mouse with the pointing stick more than the IntelliMouse.
IBM, sensing that they had a potential IntelliMouse killer on their hands, decided to bring the product to market. Being the creative powerhouse they were in the 1990s when it came to names (ThinkPad, ThinkStation, ThinkCentre, etc.) they decided to just call it the ScrollPoint.
The ScrollPoint 1.0
The original ScrollPoint was released in 1998, featuring a pointing stick almost identical to those found in ThinkPads, the only difference being the use of an “IBM Blue” rubber piece instead of red to differentiate the two technologies. It was the first mouse with hardware-based horizontal scrolling, a feature that wouldn’t be seen from other brands until the tilting scroll wheel was introduced in 2004 with Microsoft’s Wireless IntelliMouse 2.0. At the time of writing, there's one on eBay in its original box.
Although the focus groups had found it far more intuitive than the IntelliMouse, IBM didn’t attract nearly as many customers as they’d hoped. They decided to try and get more people to switch over by bundling ScrollPoints with new IBM desktop PCs, although the decision was widely criticized by users who’d already been using scroll wheels for a couple years at that point.
The ScrollPoint II
So what did IBM do? They kept selling the thing unchanged until 2000, when they completely redesigned it. Like the fourth-generation TrackPoint, it now featured that middle-click button in front of the
pointing scrolling stick. Speaking of the scrolling stick, it received the most significant change. Gone was the blue rubber ScrollPoint nub found on the first-gen mouse, and in its place was a wider plastic nub with a convex design that made it more comfortable to rest your middle finger on. Despite these improvements finally making the ScrollPoint II a potential IntelliMouse replacement for more people, it was dead on arrival. Optical sensors were all the rage now thanks to Microsoft’s latest Intellimouses. (IntelliMice?) The ScrollPoint II, being opto-mechanical, didn’t stand a chance.
The ScrollPoint Pro
Although the original wasn’t very successful, IBM somehow ended up green-lighting a second line of ScrollPoint mice around the same time that ScrollPoint II development had started. This mouse had a design sculpted to fit right-handed users better, similar to the IntelliMouse Explorer, and was announced at IBM’s press release on February 28th, 2000. It was called the ScrollPoint Pro, because we all know those damn southpaws are too unprofessional for a mouse like this.
The ScrollPoint Pro was sold in 2 colours, Antique Sage (greenish-grey with white on the sides) and Slate Blue (dark blue with darker blue on the sides.) Once again, these mice failed to attract as many buyers as IBM had hoped, because they were opto-mechanical mice as well. The Antique Sage model is somewhat collectible because it looked like nothing else IBM was selling at the time, but in general, this model is just as undesirable as the other ball-based ScrollPoints.
The ScrollPoint III
In 2003, IBM, who seemingly forgot that those mice they once touted as revolutionary still didn’t have optical sensors, revamped both product lines. The ScrollPoint III was now available, featuring an 800 DPI optical sensor in place of the 400 DPI opto-mechanical system. The plastic ScrollPoint nub remained the same, though it was now made of transparent blue plastic with a blue LED inside, because blue LEDs were the coolest thing since dry ice back in the 2000s, and the body of the mouse was now Slate Blue. There was a small refresh in late 2003, which killed off the Slate Blue colour for good, in favour of the metallic black from the Pro II. Other minor additions from the refresh included increased cursor sensitivity, and inexplicably, the loss of the ability to use the mouse on glass, despite using the same sensor as the blue one. This would be the last change to any ScrollPoint mouse aside from the Lenovo branding added in 2005.
The ScrollPoint Pro II
The ScrollPoint Pro was redesigned at the same time as the original. The glowing nub and optical sensor found in the ScrollPoint III were now on the higher-end model too. The ScrollPoint Pro II was offered exclusively in black, much to the dismay of the 3 people who bought the original. I REALLY want one of these.
The Death of the ScrollPoint
I don’t know exactly why the ScrollPoint failed, but after using my own ScrollPoint II, I have a few guesses. First off, it probably didn't have the best reputation after most of its users were people who got a first-gen ScrollPoint with their new Aptiva desktop. It was probably like how Windows Vista was the best version of Windows after all its patches in 2009, but that was still overshadowed by how bad it was at launch.
Secondly, the out-of-box experience. It’s absolutely terrible. Windows doesn’t have built-in driver support for the ScrollPoint, which led to a lot of people complaining when moving the pointing stick simply jumped to the top or bottom of the page. The pointing stick only works after installing Lenovo’s/IBM’s mouse software, which is far less convenient than having a mouse with a wheel that offers variable speed the moment you use it for the first time. As far as Linux support goes, I don’t even know if the kernel ever had support for it.
Lastly, and probably the most likely answer, is marketing. IBM was already developing mice with scroll wheels to compete with the IntelliMouse, and they presumably thought those would be easier to sell in large quantities.
The ScrollPoint mouse just never caught on; the Pro variant was axed in 2009, followed by the ScrollPoint III in November of 2015. IBM’s site originally said you’d never look back after switching to a ScrollPoint, but it seems like most people just didn’t agree. And to Mouse Systems, maybe you should've waited another 20 years. It seems that mice will sell like hotcakes these days if they look like a Transformers action figure got jammed while morphing back into a car.
Huge thanks to IBMfiles for all the info! I’ve definitely skipped over a few details, so go check them out if you want to hear the rest