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New Computer Mice Will Be Handier than Ever : Computers: In addition to being more efficient and durable, the latest generation of the pointing device is ergonomically correct.

April 26, 1993|From Associated Press

SEATTLE — Coming soon to a hand near you: nicer mice.

The two major manufacturers of computer mice--those soap-bar-shaped gizmos that are scooted over desktops to move data on a computer screen--are bringing out new models they say are more efficient, durable and, especially, more comfy.

Microsoft Corp. today premieres a major remake of its Mouse, now shaped in a languid "J" its designers say is equally comfortable in right or left hands. Next week, Logitech Inc. brings out a new version of its MouseMan Cordless, which uses radio instead of a cable "tail" to transmit commands.

While both products sport numerous technical improvements, as much if not more emphasis has been put on ergonomic design. The most tactile part of personal computing has been recast in sensuous curves that nestle in the palm.

"It's surprising how much more sophisticated people are now about ergonomics," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said last week. The goal, he says, was to remake the 6-year-old "Ivory soap bar" Mouse into a product that would cause no discomfort and not distract from the task at hand.

Almost as fast as their flesh-and-blood namesakes, mice have been multiplying as graphics-based computer programs such as Microsoft Windows and IBM's OS-2 grow in popularity. Such programs demand a mouse or other pointing device to function best.

Bruce Reuter, a physical therapist at the Work Performance Center in Muncie, Ind., says he hasn't seen any health problems caused by mice, probably because they aren't used for long periods in repetitive motions. But Reuter, who evaluates computer workstations for the rehabilitation center, says it's always a good idea to make a mouse or any other tool as comfortable as possible.

"It's a real nice mouse," said Kimball Brown, an analyst at market research company Info Corp. who has been testing one of Microsoft's. "But for the kind of money they're charging for it, it better be."

Microsoft makes just one kind of desktop mouse, which lists at $109 to $125. Logitech produces a variety of mice and pointing devices, with the MouseMan Cordless listed at $149.

The two companies control about 85% of the mouse market, Gates said. Logitech leads in supplying mice with new computers, while Microsoft is ahead in the retail aftermarket, the companies say.

Apple Computer pioneered the use of mice in the early 1980s, first with the Lisa computer, then with the far more popular Macintosh.

Logitech, of Fremont in the San Francisco Bay Area, got into the business in 1982, and Microsoft followed a year later. Today, Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft estimates 60 million mice are being used with IBM-compatible computers, with the number growing by about 18 million a year.

Apple, which ships its own mice with its machines, sold 2.6 million Macintoshes last year. The bulk of Logitech's and all of Microsoft's production is for IBM-compatible PCs.

Cliff Brooks, Microsoft's big cheese for mice, said the company spent two years working with customers, consultants and a 65-member in-house team to design a mouse that would work well with Windows. The team went through more than 50 designs on the "Carrera" project, code-named after the Porsche with the sexy lines.

The final product is specially weighted and shaped to make the screen pointer more accurate, and has a more flexible cable to reduce accidental movement. Inside is a new opto-mechanical encoder, to more precisely tell the mouse where it is.

Logitech feels flattered, since its mice have long been ergonomically shaped and used opto-mechanical technology, spokeswoman Amy Rupley said.

"Microsoft's new Mouse serves to validate many hardware and software features that Logitech has incorporated over the years," she said.

The new MouseMan Cordless, coming out next Monday, uses low-frequency radio waves to operate within six feet of a computer. It has also been reworked for comfort. Unlike Microsoft's Mouse, MouseMan comes in left, right and large-hand versions.

Brooks says Microsoft rejected right- and left-handed mice after companies told them they wanted one version for shared computers.

Microsoft reworked its Mouse software, which Brown calls "just super." Among other things, it can automatically move the pointer to default buttons on the screen, offers screen wrap--if the pointer moves off one side of the screen, it appears on the opposite--and can use the pointer as a magnifying glass. The mouse also can be custom-set to work at any angle.

"There's a lot more control on the mouse and that's very nice," Brown said.

Logitech likewise has software improvements for its new mouse.

The Mouse, the Ballpoint Mouse for laptop computers and a sound card are the only hardware products made by Microsoft, the world's largest maker of personal computer software. For fiscal 1992, hardware accounted for $254 million of Microsoft's $2.8 billion in sales.

Logitech had sales of about $250 million last year, with at least half that coming from pointing devices, including mice, spokeswoman Vanessa Torres said.

"We've been able to make a heck of a business out of this," Gates said. "That's in contrast to when we got into it and said, 'Hey, we don't know what we are doing.' "

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