Trackballs are gaining favor among computer users for convenience, ease of use

January 10, 1994|By Joshua Mills | Joshua Mills,New York Times News Service

* Peter Lewis is now covering the cyberspace beat for the New York Times. Joshua Mills has taken over his column on computers and business. People who use a trackball for desktop computing are passionate about the advantages of the device, a sort of inverted mouse. Like a mouse, a trackball uses a roller ball to control the cursor on the computer screen, but unlike a mouse, the device sits still: Only the ball, firmly cradled in a base, is moved.

Trackballs, their fans say, provide more precise cursor control, are easier on aching arms and wrists and take up far less space on a desk than a mouse, which needs a meadow at least 6 by 8 inches to roam.

So why were more than 19 million mouses sold last year and only about 500,000 trackballs? While the first trackballs appeared in the late 1970s and the mouse not until 1981, virtually every computer these days comes with a mouse. That seems to be fine with most buyers, who pay about as much attention to the pointing device as new car buyers do to tires.

"Corporate buyers tend to think that the mouse that comes with the machine is adequate," said Peter Godfrey, president and chief executive of Micro Warehouse, whose catalog operation sells software and peripheral devices from Norwalk, Conn. "The input device is not high on their list of priorities."

The priorities are "the central processing unit, the monitor, the rTC printer," said Jim Hart, East Coast sales manager for Kensington Microware Ltd., the largest trackball maker, with more than a third of the market. "Most corporate buyers just don't think about input devices."

So until complaints or special needs intrude, there's little incentive for a buyer to pay an extra $100 or so to get a trackball. Trackballs come in two basic varieties: one with a ball the size of a marble and the other, far more popular, with a roller the size of a billiard ball.

In portable as opposed to desktop computing, trackballs are far more common, built into models like Apple's Powerbook and Duo and Compaq's LTE machines. Other input devices for portables include tiny joysticks, embedded in the keyboard, as in IBM's Thinkpad; pens with a roller ball in the tip, pop-up and add-on mouses and other new approaches.

Even in the bread-and-butter world of desktops, trackball acceptance is growing, driven by crowded desks, ergonomic concerns and a need for more precise cursor control.

Kensington, based in San Mateo, Calif., which makes only large-ball models, said its sales more than doubled in 1993, helped by its new software, Expert Mouse 4.0, which provides a wider range of cursor-control options for its trackball. The Expert Mouse is for DOS and Windows machines; Kensington's Turbo Mouse dominates the Macintosh market.

At Microspeed Inc. of Fremont, Calif., which also only makes the large-ball model, units shipped rose about 50 percent last year, led by its Wintrack model, said Timothy C. Barry, the president, giving the company about 25 percent of the market.

And at Logitech Inc., which is also in Fremont but makes only small trackballs, sales were also up 50 percent last year, "increasing more quickly than mouse sales," said Amy Rupley, a company spokeswoman. Logitech, the only big company that makes both mouses and trackballs, is the world's largest mouse maker.

Part of the growing demand re flects corporate concerns about injuries. The Labor Department estimates that several hundred thousand American workers suffer from some form of repetitive stress injury, most frequently in occupations that require constant work at computer keyboards.

A well-designed trackball -- or an ergonomically modified mouse -- can sometimes ease the pain in a sore joint, various experts say.

Ergonomic concerns aside, many corporate users say a trackball, with its small "footprint," fits better on a crowded desk than a mouse.

Faced with such attitudes, mouse makers are scampering to build a better mouse.

The Microsoft Corp., which sells more mouses at retail than any other company (Logitech sells more to computer makers) introduced in April the Microsoft Mouse 2.0 (list price $109), which some people have irreverently nicknamed the hunchback. Less angular and with a sweeping curve, it seems far more

comfortable to a casual user than its predecessor.

"The ergonomic redesign was partly customer-driven," said Rick Thompson, general manager of hardware at Microsoft.

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