How big is the input device market? Huge, according to surveys. With GUI operating systems standard now, everyone needs a mouse or similar device for input. Keyboards used to be a standard component; now they’re designer inspired and ergonomically correct. Joysticks used to be for the young kids to play low-res games; now they’re complex instruments that can require programming to work properly. And the alternatives to traditional input devices keeps growing: touchpads, trackballs, light pens, and more esoteric equipment is catching on with the picky public. Let’s take a quick look at the state of the market for a few of these devices.

The old-style mouse -- vaguely angular block of beige plastic -- is long gone. Microsoft started the mass movement to new mouse shapes with it’s "dove bar" mouse, designed to fit more comfortably in the palm of the hand with fingers falling naturally on the mouse buttons. The more recent Microsoft Mouse is even longer than the old mouse, supporting more of the hand (although still available in only the traditional beige colour). Since it is shipped with many preconfigured systems, the Microsoft mouse is the most widely used.

Logitech (Fremont CA) wasn’t behind the trend to more comfortable mice, either. They have offered a wide variety of mouse shapes for years. From the traditional three button block mouse to new ergonomic designs in many different colors and designs, Logitech has been pushing the mouse as a designer accessory. Newly designed units for Windows 95 have started shipping, with software that better integrates the mouse into Windows applications.

Probably more than any company, Logitech has offered more alternate input devices that replace the traditional cord-bound mouse. Logitech still offers the cordless mouse, which uses an infrared receiver to pick up mouse movements transmitted by the mouse. Specialty IR devices are also offered, such as the TrackMan Live. The TrackMan Live is a hand-held device for remote presentations, incorporating three buttons and a small trackball that let presenters stand anywhere in the room and beam mouse commands to a receiver.

Trackballs were the major focus of Logitech for a mouse alternative for many years. Trackballs offer the advantage that they don’t need a lot of desk space, but sit still in one location with the thumb controlling the trackball and fingers falling on three buttons. Getting used to a trackball takes just a few minutes and can be more comfortable than traditional mice. Logitech offers a number of trackball versions, including the TrackMan Marble which uses an optical sensor to detect trackball movements instead of traditional rollers which can clog.

One continual complaint with most mouse models is hand position, often leading to repetitive strain injuries (RSI) when used all day long. To combat this problem, mouse designers are starting to conduct extensive ergonomic tests. Contour Design (San Ramon, CA) leads this field and has a specially designed mouse available and the same price as other mice. The Contour Design mouse is available in three different sizes to better fit a hand. The side of the mouse has a thumb support molded in to allow the mouse to be moved with less pinch force, a major contributor to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

The top shape of the Contour Design mouse is more sculpted than other mouse designs, with a longer length to provide elevated wrist support and reduce wrist pressure. The palm support is designed to balance the hand while the buttons are longer than traditional designs for better loading from the fingers. There’s a lot of research behind the design of the Contour Design mouse, some of it explained in a user guide which accompanies the mouse (imagine; instructions for using your mouse!). Does the design make a difference? Most definitely. After a few days use, most testers found the Contour Design mouse to be more natural and comfortable than other designs.

Touchpads are currently being touted as a mouse killer by several companies. According to industry figures, touchpads have grown from a 1% market share in 1994 to 30% this year, with a very optimistic 70% share by 1998. The advantages to touchpads are simple: they are solid-state devices with no moving parts to wear out, and can be made very sensitive to finger movement and taps. According to touchpad manufacturer BIS Strategic Decisions (Lowell MA), touchpads are destined to be the primary pointing device in laptops and will increase steadily as add-on devices for desktop machines.

Keyboards have undergone a change, too, from the drab, functional block s we all used to use. Keyboards that are more carefully designed to prevent RSI have appeared over the last few years from a number of vendors, including Apple and Microsoft. Indeed, Microsoft’s Natural Keyboard has been growing in popularity over the last two years as more touch-typists find the shape to be better suited to their hands. While Apple discontinued it’s break-apart keyboard last year, there are third-party models replacing the void.

Changes in keyboard design go beyond breaking the traditional layout apart. Some keyboards now incorporate trackballs, touch pads, and other pointing devices. Extra sets of function keys, calculator displays, and status panels are all available on different models from small specialty manufacturers. Alternate key layouts, such as the Dvorak layout, have all but disappeared from the market in the last year or two, in favor of the QWERTY keyboard.

Keyboard manufacturers try to develop models not only for better ergonomic feel for users, but also for more industrial uses. Fujitsu (Mississauga ON) offers a number of membrane keyboards which eschew traditional keys in favor of touch sensitive pads. These keyboards are preferable in dirty or dusty environments, where a standard keyboard can become clogged or malfunction due to airborne particles.

The surge in game popularity, especially with the better integration of Windows 95 with games, has driven the joystick market to new heights. Joysticks continue to evolve in complexity and capability, with new developments spurring repeat purchases by users. One informal survey conducted on CompuServe’s gaming groups showed that 15% of all gamers who consider themselves hard-core (those who play games more than ten hours a week) upgrade their joystick and joystick controllers at least once a year. The average for the rest of the gamers was once every two years. That’s a lot of turnover for the joystick market!

From the traditional joystick with one or two buttons derived from video game systems, joysticks have become a complex item. Advanced Gravis is a popular vendor of joysticks, with their Firebird unit appealing to many flight simulator and real-time gamers. The Firebird is physically large and imposing on first glance. There are eight buttons and two rotary dials on the base and another seven buttons on the stick itself. Firebird’s software lets users assign functions to each button for many popular games, including multiple keystrokes on a single button. With adjustable tension on all axes for the stick itself, the Firebird can be adjusted to feel right for anyone. Like many of the more sophisticated joysticks, Firebird doesn’t use the game port. Instead it plugs into the keyboard socket with a pass-through connector for the real keyboard.

There are lots of traditional joystick models on the market, most of which connect to a game port. Logitech, CH Products, and Thrustmaster (Portland OR) all offer joysticks with adjustable feel, numerous buttons on the stick, and a sleek look and feel. For specialty gamers, dedicated add-ons are available. For example, Thrustmaster makes an add-on throttle quadrant for flight simulators, which, when played with the left hand and their joystick played with the right, lets users feel as though they are seated at real cockpit controls. Several types of foot pedals are available for flight and automobile racing enthusiasts, as are steering wheels and airplane yokes.

A few companies are going further than simple add-on devices: Interface Dynamics Corp. offers a special bracket that holds throttle and joystick with the keyboard and monitor angled in front of the user to resemble a cockpit. Even more extreme is the Thunderseat (Los Angeles CA), which is a complete cockpit made of woods with mounts for monitor and controllers. A subwoofer mounted under the padded seat vibrates the user at appropriate times. Surround sound capabilities make this device as enthralling as the most complex video flight games in arcades.

Finally, the video-game style controller is still popular for many action and arcade sequences. Models from Advanced Gravis, STD, and Suncom offer small colourful units with a small joystick connector and buttons that look just like controllers from the more powerful video game systems. These controllers provide an easy transition from video game to computer game.

Sales of input devices are continuing to grow as more people buy their first home machine or upgrade existing older technology. With each new machine, a mouse, keyboard, and joystick or some alternative device is necessary, and rather than accept the standard units supplied with systems many users are insisting on upgrades to the more comfortable, better designed premium units. The fuss over RSI has helped the input device market considerably, as many individuals and companies have replaced old-style equipment with newer, more ergonomic devices. The input market is strong, slowly advancing, and offers a continual sales stream for most VARs.