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Clicking the Right Button

I would like to share with you a tiny personal frustration in the hope that by doing so, I can eventually eliminate it. The frustration is that in nearly every Mac-related book and article I write, the Powers That Be require me to add cumbersome extra words – over and over again – to explain how to click one of the buttons on your mouse (or trackball or trackpad).

What I want to be able to say is, “right-click” (followed by whatever it is you should right-click on, and what you should do afterwards), but what my editors invariably make me say is “Control-click (or right-click)” – that is, hold down the Control key while clicking, or alternatively click the right-hand mouse button. Presumably they do this because of a belief that a large percentage of Mac users don’t know what a right click is, don’t have an input device that can perform a right click, or have deliberately chosen not to enable this feature on their input device – meaning the only guaranteed way to get the desired end result is to Control-click. After all, for many years Macs had only one-button mice, and to this day don’t require two-button mice, so to tell someone to right-click – so the thinking goes – is to tell them to do something that may be incomprehensible or even impossible.

Except I don’t buy that. It was true a decade ago, of course, but it is far from true today. I am convinced that the vast majority of people who read what I write about the Mac are sufficiently attuned to modern ways to know exactly what I mean by right-clicking and that no further explanation is necessary, even if they physically lack a second mouse button. But for those few of you who are still scratching your heads over the notion of a right click, I want to not only clear things up once and for all but also persuade you that a second mouse button (or its trackpad equivalent) is a true friend that will, once you get properly acquainted, fill you with joy for the rest of your days. I also have some other things to say about that extra button that may be of interest to everyone, however comfortable you may already be with a multi-button mouse.

Hot Button Issue — By way of disclosure and background, you should know that I spent five years (1997-2002) managing the development of Kensington’s MouseWorks software for both Mac and Windows, which, among other things, enables users to define the functions of all the buttons on certain Kensington input devices. During my tenure at the company, we released a trackball with 11 buttons and a touchpad device called WebRacer with no fewer than 22 buttons! The software has apparently languished in recent years – I don’t know anything about that, so don’t ask! – but I’m just saying that my professional involvement with multi-button input devices goes way back, and undoubtedly gives me a certain bias.

I should also mention another bias here at the outset: I’m right-handed. As my wife, who’s left-handed, would be quick to point out, the whole notion of a “right click” is a bit discriminatory, as left-handed people tend to use their left index finger to click their primary mouse button (on the right side of the mouse) and their middle finger to click the secondary button (on the left side of the mouse). So the neutral term – and the one Apple uses – is “secondary click,” but the nature of English is such that that expression works well as a noun but less well as a verb. I can tell you to “right-click” something, but it sounds awkward to “secondary-click” something. So, with apologies to the lefties out there, I follow the convention (long established in the Windows world) of using “right-click” to mean “click the secondary button,” which is to say the logical right button, even if it happens to be physically located on the left (or top or bottom or elsewhere) on your input device of choice.

A Scroll Down Memory Lane — Let’s zip back in time to 1984. The Mac is brand new, and one of its nifty innovations (although not in fact invented by Apple) is a little box called a mouse. The mouse made the Mac’s unique graphical interface possible, and introduced an entirely new way for people to interact with computers. Instead of having to memorize commands that you must type on a keyboard, you could point at words and pictures on the screen, and by clicking that big button on top of the mouse, tell it to take some action. At the time, some people saw the mouse as superfluous and confusing – everybody already understands keyboards, and they work just fine, don’t they? – but it caught on quickly enough and soon became a normal way to operate a computer.

The original Mac mouse had only one button, because the operating system was designed to need just one. Apple wanted to make the operation of the computer as simple and obvious as possible, and one of their design principles was to make the user interface “discoverable” – that is, it should be as easy as possible to figure out what everything does and how to perform any operation, with minimal dependence on documentation, labels, and other external cues. As history has shown, that approach worked remarkably well, and the single-button mouse was an important contributing factor to the success of the Mac in particular, and of graphical interfaces generally.

Of course, the Mac’s interface didn’t remain unique for long. Microsoft Windows 1.0, released in 1985, supported (but didn’t require) a mouse, as did graphical shells developed for various versions of Unix, as well as a long list of other operating systems that are no longer with us. What was different about the Windows approach, however, was the assumption that your mouse would have (at least) two buttons. (In much of the Unix world, three-button mice were the norm, but I’m going to ignore that in this article.)

So, why the extra button? Microsoft wanted to give users and developers more flexibility. The left mouse button selected or activated what you clicked on (just as on a Mac), whereas the right button was available for developers to use as they saw fit, and in the early years of Windows, the behavior of that button varied quite a bit. Starting with Windows 95 (released in 1995), standard behavior for the right mouse button in Windows was to display a pop-up menu at the pointer location with a list of commands relevant to whatever it was you clicked on. And that’s what most people have come to assume that “right click” means, at least on a PC.

By late 1997, Apple had clearly seen the value of those contextual pop-up menus, which could simplify activities such as copying, pasting, or modifying whatever text, icon, or other object happened to be under the mouse pointer. With the release of Mac OS 8, Mac users finally got the capability that had been standard on Windows for a couple of years, but because Mac mice still had only one button, the way to access this capability was to hold down the Control key while clicking that one button. That was the genesis of the Control-click.

Giving the Finger to the Right Button — Mac users immediately noticed and complained about the fact that it required two hands to do this common activity that Windows users could perform with one finger. But Apple’s position was that Mice Have One Button – period. The company steadfastly refused to complicate the elegant Mac design by adding an extra, potentially confusing button. After all, what is there about that second button to hint at its use? How will people know what it’s for? What if they click the wrong button by mistake and get unexpected results? No, those things aren’t consistent with the smooth, uncluttered design of the Mac. Apple wasn’t merely saying Mac mice shouldn’t have multiple buttons, but implying that Mac users were wrong to want them. It wasn’t the Macintosh way.

Of course, Apple wasn’t the only company building mice and other pointing devices that could work on a Mac, and other developers – including Kensington, Logitech, and even Microsoft – were only too happy to meet users’ demands by selling multi-button Mac mice. These invariably required custom driver software to connect the extra button(s) to some activity, and in order to make the right mouse button produce a contextual menu the same way the right button does in Windows, the software simply emulated a Control-click. Mice with more than two buttons let you assign other activities (such as double-clicking, emulating menu commands, or typing text) to the additional buttons.

It wasn’t until the release of Mac OS X in 2001 that Apple built support for multi-button mice directly into the operating system. You could plug any old 2-button USB mouse into a Mac running Mac OS X 10.0, and that right button would magically pop up a contextual menu – no extra software or Control-click emulation required! And if your mouse had more than two buttons, Mac OS X understood them and passed them along to the active application for processing in whatever way it deemed fit.

That development was a boon to users and a convenience to companies making multi-button mice, but Apple persisted in its practice – which by this point appeared rather bloody-minded – of selling only single-button mice.

But surely, you might be thinking, Apple had a valid point – two buttons are indeed more complicated than one, right? To understand why having two buttons can reduce complexity rather than increase it, you have only to think of a digital clock. Have you ever tried to set the time on a clock with just one button? You have to hold it down until the right time cycles around – and if you don’t release it at the right time, you must wait for another cycle, a real pain. With two buttons you can go at multiple speeds, or forward/backward, depending on the clock’s design. With three, maybe you can toggle AM/PM with a single press rather than having to cycle through 24 hours. And if the clock has a full keypad, it’s simpler still – just type in the exact time and you’re done. So, multiple buttons may look more complicated, but in fact they sometimes make the user interface simpler because they reduce the complexity of the action you must perform to accomplish some task. Multi-button mice are the same way.

(On the other hand, despite the fact that Windows had right-clicking long before the Mac did, Microsoft made what I regard as a poor design choice: they made some actions available only via a right click, which makes them harder to find. Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, by contrast, stipulate: “Always ensure that contextual menu items are also available as menu commands. A contextual menu is hidden by default and a user might not know it exists, so it should never be the only way to access a command. In particular, you should not use a contextual menu as the only way to access an advanced or power-user feature.” Alas, Apple occasionally ignores their own policy, as in the case of iPhoto’s Detect Missing Faces and Rescan for Location commands, but at least the principle is sound. One other note: for better or worse, unlike Windows, Mac OS X has never had a concept of right-click-and-drag, as you might do to create a shortcut, for example.)

Apple Gets It Right, Sort Of — Hell finally froze over in August 2005 when Apple introduced the Mighty Mouse (now called the Apple Mouse due to a legal complication over the name). This new rodent had physical sensors on both left and right sides of the top, a switch that activated when you squeezed the mouse, and a sensor that detected when the tiny trackball (for scrolling) was pressed down. This made for a total of four logical buttons, even though the case had no visible physical buttons (you press the entire top of the case to click, and the left or right “button” registers depending on which part of the case your finger is in contact with). Finally, using a genuine Apple mouse, users could right-click properly – and then some!

Interestingly, though, the fact that the Mighty Mouse had the equivalent of four buttons didn’t seem to change Apple’s official stance. For one thing, the mouse’s physical design meant Apple could maintain the illusion that it still wasn’t selling a multi-button mouse (or in fact a mouse with any buttons at all). For another, the default behavior of Mac OS X was to treat both the left and right sensors on top of the mouse the same – as a standard click. That is, out of the box, the Mighty Mouse was still a one-button mouse! Users were now obligated to change a setting in System Preferences explicitly to make the right “button” perform a right click.

Apple’s recent release of the Magic Mouse has continued this trend. Now not only have the buttons disappeared but so has the scrolling mechanism, replaced by a more-capable, but invisible, multi-touch sensor. Unfortunately, the Magic Mouse has only two logical buttons rather than four, which is a giant step backward in functionality.

Tap Into the Power — The story regarding right-clicking on laptops is a bit more complicated. No Apple laptop has ever had more than one physical trackpad button, and current models have no visible buttons at all – the entire trackpad is a button, and how it behaves depends on the number, position, and motion of fingers touching the pad.

For a long time, the only way users of Mac laptops could display a contextual menu was to hold down the Control key while clicking the single trackpad button (or use an external pointing device). Trackpads on Mac laptops introduced since January 2005 have the option – if you enable it – of producing a right-click response when you hold two fingertips on the trackpad and click the button (on some models) or tap with two fingers at the same time (on others). Even before that, one could use Raging Menace’s $15 Sidetrack software to “right-click” by tapping on the trackpad. And beginning with the MacBook Air introduced in February 2008, Mac laptops began using multi-touch trackpads that optionally produce a right click response when you tap in a designated (lower left or lower right) corner of the trackpad. With that configuration, it can literally be a right click, but in any case, laptop users have no longer needed both hands to get at contextual menus for several years.

Getting Right to the Point — As far as I can tell, Apple no longer sells single-button mice at all. Your current choices are the Apple Mouse (four logical buttons, wired) or Magic Mouse (two logical buttons, wireless). Every desktop Mac model introduced in October 2005 or later that included a mouse came with a multi-button mouse, and every laptop Mac model introduced in January 2005 or later has a trackpad that can produce a secondary click with one hand. So everyone whose Mac is four years old or newer has the capability to right-click, whether or not it’s enabled in System Preferences. Anyone running any version of Mac OS X with a third-party multi-button mouse, trackball, or trackpad can also right-click. And even users of Macs running System 7 can – with a third-party input device and its accompanying software – perform a right click.

In short, Mac users who lack the hardware capability to right-click are increasingly few and far between, and the vast majority of those could remedy that situation, if they choose to do so, with nothing more than a $5, two-button mouse.

If you are one of those people without an input device that can right-click – or if you have the capability but haven’t enabled it – I urge you to join the ranks of multiple clickers at your earliest opportunity! To reiterate, the key advantage is that you’ll be able to display a contextual menu with one finger, rather than two hands. Even if you normally keep both hands on the keyboard, you’ll probably find, with a day or two of practice, that right-clicking requires less effort and coordination than Control-clicking – and that it quickly becomes second nature.

And if you don’t yet use contextual menus at all, well, you don’t know what you’re missing. Because that pop-up menu is right at your pointer location, you needn’t move the pointer across a (possibly large) screen to access common menu commands such as Paste, Duplicate, Label, and many others – depending, of course, on context. Even if you prefer keyboard shortcuts to menu commands (as I do most of the time), there are often cases in which you must select something (with the mouse) before performing a command. When you can select and perform the command with one click, rather than selecting first, returning your hand(s) to the keyboard, and then pressing some keys, you save all sorts of effort.

If I’ve persuaded you to give right-clicking a try and you have a pointing device that supports it (which, I believe, should be pretty much everyone reading this), you can turn on the feature somewhere in System Preferences. The exact method depends on which version of Mac OS X you’re using, whether you have a wired or Bluetooth pointing device, a trackpad, or some combination of these, and whether or not your device is made by Apple. But in general, do one of the following:

  • For older Apple mice and third-party pointing devices without their own software, open the Mouse pane of System Preferences. Choose Secondary Button from the pop-up menu pointing to the button you want to use for right-clicking.
  • For the Apple Magic Mouse, open the Mouse pane of System Preferences. Make sure Secondary Click is checked, and choose either Left or Right from the pop-up menu to determine which side you should press for a secondary click.
  • For Mac laptops, open the Trackpad pane of System Preferences and check either Tap Trackpad Using Two Fingers for Secondary Click or Place Two Fingers on Trackpad and Click Button for Secondary Click.
  • For third-party pointing devices with their own software, follow the documentation included to assign a right (or secondary) click to the button of your choice.

And that’s it. Point at something, click your secondary button (typically with your middle finger), and notice what happens. Try it again with other things – text selections in various programs, icons in the Finder, graphics in a drawing application, and so on – and take note of how the commands change. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of performing common actions this way, you’ll never want to go back to a single-button mouse. And you’ll know exactly what I mean when I tell you to right-click!

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