Confessions of a Left-Handed Technology User

When it comes to computers, southpaws are faced by a vast right-hand conspiracy.

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Microsoft's 1993 "Microsoft Mouse 2.0" -- supposedly equally pleasing in either hand, but with suspiciously right-handed curves

The first time I realized I was different from other boys and girls was in kindergarten, when I discovered I couldn’t cut with the same scissors they used. Learning to write was a challenge, since my hand dragged through whatever I’d just put on paper, obstructing my view and smearing the ink. Setting a watch was impossible without taking it off since the crown was on the wrong side.

Yep — like roughly 10% of other humans, I was born left-handed. I don’t mean to whine: It’s a minor inconvenience rather than a misery-inducing burden.

Besides, we southpaws manage to do okay for ourselves. We’ve held the U.S. presidency for 23 out of the past 31 years. Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga are both lefties. So are Oprah and Prince William. We’re good at baseball, tennis and fencing.

Bottom line: If some pharmaceutical company invented a miracle pill which could instantly make me right-handed — let’s call it Dextora — I wouldn’t take it.

(MORE: Happy International Left-Handers Day! Celebrate Your Right to Be Left)

But when you’re left-handed, you do learn to live with all the subtle little reminders that the world is designed for the right-handed majority. They’re everywhere, and they’re especially pervasive when it comes to PCs and related products.

Consider the evidence:

  • Things like power buttons and disk-drive eject buttons are usually on the right side, so they’re easy to reach with your right index finger.
  • Laptop optical drives are usually on the right side of the case.
  • Numeric keypads? Right side. Always, in the case of laptops. (Desktop PC-using lefthanders are able to rustle up keyboards with left-handed numeric keypads if they feel strongly enough about the matter.)
  • The control panels on printers are often to the right of the paper trays. Exactly where you’d want them to be if you’re standing in front of a printer and are right-handed.

About the only enduring thing we left-handed PC users have had going for us is the QWERTY keyboard layout. It’s delightfully southpaw-friendly, with the majority of the most-used letters on the left side. Which helps to explain why I’ve always felt so much more comfortable typing than I have writing with a pen or a pencil — even though I don’t know how to touch type.

August Dvorak’s famous alternative keyboard layout was designed, in part, to eliminate QWERTY’s leftward tendencies, therefore making typing easier and more efficient for the vast majority of people who happen to be right-handed. I’m happy that it never caught on with the masses, even if 90% of the masses might be better served by it.

The mouse, on the other hand, is the poster child for the PC’s determinedly right-handed bias. The early days were fine: Beginning with Douglas Engelbart’s original model and continuing through early commercial versions from Microsoft and Apple, mice were symmetrical and therefore ambidextrous. (Multi-button mice did assume that you were holding the mouse with your right hand and pressing the left-most button with your index finger to click, but this was easily reversible through software.)

It’s true that in 1987, when I bought my first computer that came with a mouse — a Commodore Amiga 500 — I moused with my right hand. It wasn’t because the mouse itself wasn’t lefty-friendly, though. It was because the mouse used a serial connection, and the Amiga’s serial ports were all on the far right-hand side of the case, where they’d be convenient for right-handed people. There was no way to snake the mouse over to the computer’s other side and still have enough cord left to use it.

When I ditched my Amiga for a PC clone in 1991, I switched to using the mouse with my left hand, and never went back. But it wasn’t always easy. In 1993, Microsoft — then as now one of the leading manufacturers of mice — reengineered its mouse in a way that I found distinctly lefthander-hostile.

The company’s “Microsoft Mouse 2.0” was asymmetric and kidney-bean shaped, curving inward on left to create a comfy spot for your right thumb to rest as you used it. If you were right-handed, it was probably a joy. If you were a lefty, it wasn’t completely unusable, but it certainly didn’t feel like it was designed with your hand in mind.

Here’s the bizarre part: Microsoft claimed that this mouse, which was so obviously sculpted to fit the right hand, was in fact equally pleasing for lefthanders. It was a little like Nike announcing that it had designed a sneaker which was a perfect fit on either foot.

Just looking at the Microsoft Mouse 2.0 promo presentation from 1995, I see telltale signs of the mouse’s right-centrism. The presentation includes reassuring words for lefthanders, and shows the mouse being used in the left hand. But the hand model who’s using it left-handed is wearing his watch on his left wrist — clear evidence that he’s a righty trying to pass as a lefty.

A few years later, as Microsoft released new mice based on the same general form factor, I sometimes found myself on the receiving end of sales pitches by Microsoft input-device product managers. They’d explain to me how a mouse was elegantly shaped to fit the hand and invite me to try it out. I’d melodramatically plop my left palm on it, showing that it wasn’t designed for me. Oftentimes I felt like I was dealing with someone who’d never actually met a left-handed person before.

As recently as 2004, Microsoft reiterated the notion that the Microsoft Mouse 2.0 worked fine in both hands. And it’s continued to sell direct descendants of it, such as the Microsoft Comfort Mouse 6000. But the company says this mouse is for right-handed use, and it places extra buttons on the left-hand side so you can press them with your right thumb. Sorry, southpaws: No comfort for you.

I’m not saying that Microsoft’s input-device designers never took the needs of lefties into account so much as that it was a losing battle.

In this old research paper on the development of its Office Keyboard— which put a scroll wheel and special buttons on the left side of the keyboard, so you could use them while your right hand stayed on the mouse — the company said that 95% of all people moused with their right hand. That would mean that roughly fifty-percent of lefthanders were right-mousers, which sounds about right. With that in mind, there was no scenario under which it would have made sense to place the keyboard’s extra controls on the right side, which is where a left-mouser would want them.

In the same paper, Microsoft discussed a focus group it conducted while developing the keyboard. It included 12 righthanders, and one lefthander who moused with his right hand. Fair enough. Why bring a left-mouser into the process when his or her needs could never, ever supercede those of the right-mousing 95 percent?

Back in the 1990s, when the Microsoft Mouse 2.0 showed up on desks everywhere, it was an unhealthy influence on the input-device industry. Logitech, Microsoft’s mouse-making archrival, also started shaping mice to fit the right hand. Yet Logitech never deserted lefties entirely: It always offered some old-fashioned symmetrical models, and at some points offered models shaped specifically to fit the left hand. So in the mid-1990s, I tended to be a user of Logitech mice.

Then, at home, I switched to Kensington’s wonderful Expert Mouse — still available in a modern version — which wasn’t a mouse at all. It was a trackball, and the cool thing about trackballs is that they’re spherical, and therefore inherently well-suited to both right- and left-handed users.

Well, except for Microsoft trackballs: The company managed to invent one that could only be used with the right hand.

At work, I used a pricey left-handed, medium-sized Contour mouse prescribed to me by an ergonomic consultant hired by my employer. It looked a little like a medical instrument, and visitors tended to make fun of it, but I liked it.

Contour, incidentally, still makes left-handed mice. It only makes them in two sizes though, versus the three it once offered. Righties get four sizes, drat them.

I started out saying I didn’t intend to be whiny about the lot of the lefthander — and yet this article, so far, sounds pretty whiny even to me. Don’t worry: There’s a happy ending, and we’re almost there.

For a time, I fretted that as gadgets became more mobile, they’d grow even more right-biased. For example, the Tablet PC, which Microsoft thought would come to overshadow conventional laptops, replaced left-friendly QWERTY with handwriting recognition, which, if you’re left-handed, makes it tough to see what you’re doing.

And while I loved my PalmPilot, the Palm OS always felt like it was designed for right-handers: A lot of the features were over on the right edge of the screen, which meant that if you were tapping them with a stylus held in your left hand, you were covering the screen.

But the faster technology has progressed in recent years, the more it’s evolved in ways that eliminate the righty bias. Modern laptops, for starters, are kind to southpaws, in part because touchpads are as ambidextrous as input devices can get: They’re flat and rectangular, and the buttons, when they still exist, are at the bottom, not on one side. For this reason, it’s been years since I last used a mouse or trackball of any type.

Even many modern mice are more lefty-tolerant than most of the ones of the past. The trend has swung back to models which fit either hand equally well. And Razer, God bless it, even makes a left-handed gaming mouse — something I’m tempted to buy even though I rarely play games and never use a mouse.

For whatever reason, current technology products in general seem less obsessive about placing buttons and other controls on the right side, perhaps because so many of them are most often operated by remote controls. For decades, almost all TV sets placed their controls to the right of the screen. On my Toshiba, however, they’re on the left edge.

Heck, HP has even taking to selling what I think of as left-handed printers.

Most important, the arrival of the first iPhone in 2007 ushered in a new era of largely ambidextrous technology. Whether it’s intentional or a happy accident, the iPhone and iPad, and most of the gizmos that have drawn so much inspiration from them, are among the most lefthander-friendly gizmos in history.

On both the iPhone and the iPad, Apple’s iconic home button sits in the middle, not on the right side. In fact, while both devices do have nominal “right sides,” they use accelerometers to reorient themselves as you rotate them around; by design, they’re intended to be side-neutral in a way that PCs never are.

The only pointing devices you use are your own fingers and thumbs; either hand works equally well, and the displays are small enough that it’s not a hassle to reach any part of them with whatever digit you prefer.

For me, at least, handedness doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue with phones and tablets as it is with PCs and other devices. Sometimes I hold my phone or tablet in my left hand and operate it with my right hand; sometimes I hold it in my right hand and operate it with my left hand, Or I cradle it with both hands and use both thumbs, or in one hand and use the thumb of that hand. Any which way I try it, it works.

Having spent most of my life adjusting to a right-handed world — I now cut paper with my right hand and can’t even use left-handed scissors when I try — it’s a genuine thrill to think that technology is finally adjusting itself to me.

MORE: Brain Science: Does Being Left-Handed Make You Angry?

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