Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door. It stands to reason that the adage about innovation and capitalist reward would apply to better mice as well, at least of the computer variety.
By that measure, the vertical mouse, which resembles a gamer's joystick, ought to be poised for commercial success.
The International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, a respected quarterly, published a study this month that said switching to the odd-looking mouse had reduced the pain suffered by computer users in their hands, arms and necks and trimmed the number of workdays lost to sick leave.
Still, if the past is any guide, the Anir Vertical Mouse, also known as Dr. Mouse, faces an uphill struggle, and its producer, Animax International of Norway, will not mint a fortune soon.
Industry history, economics and human nature resist an insurgent product unless it promises a huge improvement in price, performance or some other benefit. Economists call the forces favoring the incumbent product "lock-in" and describe the steep hurdle faced by an innovative newcomer as high "switching costs."
"Often, it's the brain that is the real lock-in -- people's habits are so difficult to change," said Hal Varian, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley.
The producers of ergonomic computer keyboards and mice have found it frustratingly difficult to make major inroads. As many as 20 percent of the nation's 150 million computer users, especially those working on their machines for four hours or more a day, are considered to be at risk of suffering repetitive-stress injuries.
Most ergonomic products try to reduce strain by putting the hands in a more natural position -- tilted, with the thumbs raised somewhat instead of having the hands splayed flat.
The most successful ergonomic product has been the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, a wave-shaped, split keyboard that raises the thumbs and separates the hands. Microsoft's hardware unit -- which produces mainly keyboards, mice and joysticks -- is a quiet success story within the software giant.
This contradicts repeated claims by critics that Microsoft owes its success to the unfair edge it enjoys because of its industry-standard Windows operating system. Microsoft has no natural advantage in hardware other than a well-known brand and deep pockets.
Yet Rick Thompson, vice president of the hardware unit, said the Natural Keyboard, introduced in 1994, did not take the market by storm as he had hoped. Today, about 120 million PCs are shipped worldwide each year, nearly all of them with flat keyboards.
The so-called aftermarket for replacement or enhanced keyboards is about 3 million, and one in five of those has an ergonomic design. Microsoft holds an estimated two-thirds of the ergonomic keyboard market.
"You simply can't cause most people to change from the standard design even if your product is better," Thompson said.
The six-month field study reported seems encouraging. It was conducted by Dr. Arne Aaras, coordinator of health medical services in Norway for Alcatel, the European telecommunications company, and two assistants.
The study looked at 69 computer users, recording their pain levels with questionnaires. Pain dropped 30 percent to 50 percent. Alcatel and the Norwegian government financed the study.
Other ergonomic experts are impressed. Marvin Dainoff, director of the Center for Ergonomic Research at Miami University in Ohio, called the study powerful.
Yet the hurdles of habit and price are high. Researchers say that it takes a day or so to learn how to use the vertical mouse and that performance drops slightly.
And the Anir Vertical mouse costs $50. "Anything that knocks up the price of a system is very tough to sell," said Neal Taslitz, president of Humantouch Products.
Pub Date: 09/20/99