Handy Devices: New Keyboards and Mice Take Users' Hands to Heart

As motion-related ailments continue to take their toll—physically and fiscally—federal buyers are looking seriously at the new breed of user-friendly input devices designed to end suffering and increase efficiency.

For years, PC buyers had a pretty short checklist when it came time to evaluate input devices. Questions tended to focus on key click, key bounce and, in the case of a mouse, whether it required a serial or PS/2 mouse port connection.

In the past couple of years, that list has grown considerably as buyers have begun to realize how critical the input device is to users' comfort and productivity. And manufacturers have responded with a new look and feel, adopting more ergonomic designs and incorporating new function keys and buttons specifically for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows.

Civilian and Defense agencies are evaluating the new breed of devices amid growing concern over the human suffering, lost productivity and medical expense caused by repetitive-stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (Spawar) in Crystal City, Va., for example, is evaluating a variety of ergonomic devices. "Ergonomics is a major thrust in the Navy," said George Cantwell, safety manager at the command. "The Navy has written specific instructions to commanding officers to evaluate the ergonomics of their work-places."

Under the program, Cantwell has distributed ergonomic devices to employees who have had some kind of problem. The users are expected to turn in reviews of the products; these reviews will be put into a database to help the command locate appropriate ergonomic devices for other employees in the future.

Among the devices being evaluated are ergonomic keyboards, which typically feature a keyboard split into two or more sections, allowing the hands to be set farther apart than they are with traditional keyboards. The sections are usually set at an angle, easing the stress of pronation, which is the palms-down position that experts say contributes significantly to motion disorders. Mouse and trackball vendors have also embraced ergonomics, although none are being as radically redesigned as keyboards.

Of those products, the government is showing the most interest in ergonomic keyboards, particularly the $85 Natural keyboard from Microsoft. "Ergonomic keyboards are our most highly requested input devices, and of those, the most highly requested item is the Microsoft Natural," said Tony Colangelo, director of marketing at Government Technology Services Inc. The Natural, introduced in September 1994, features a split and angled keyboard that encourages a straight wrist position. It also has a palm rest and a wrist-leveling rail.

Among keyboards, the Natural is CompUSA Inc.'s hottest seller, according to Tom Everitt, federal account manager for the firm's Eastern region. And Elbelco Inc., a reseller in San Antonio, Texas, has sold several hundred Naturals off the Air Force's Non-Appropriated Funds contract since they were introduced, according to sales manager Loretta Elbel. "That's substantial considering how difficult it is to change" from the standard-issue keyboard purchased as part of most PC systems, she said.

To keep up with demand, Microsoft is negotiating with another manufacturing partner, said Keith Kegley, marketing manager for the Natural at Microsoft. (The original manufacturer was KeyTronic Corp.) Microsoft has also negotiated large-scale OEM contracts with Micron Electronics Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Packard-Bell and Gateway 2000 that will let them offer the Natural as an option.

Microsoft also developed a plan to make it easier for resellers to promote the Natural as an option, primarily by offering a price incentive. "We want to develop a new channel for mice and keyboards to be able to give all federal resellers a better price and more involvement in the sale," Kegley said. Specifically, Microsoft offers a value pack. "It is something like the 50-pack that we offer for the Microsoft Mouse, where you buy 40 and get 10 free," he said.

Varying Degrees of Comfort

The Natural has been good news and bad news for other ergonomic keyboard vendors. On the one hand, having a behemoth such as Microsoft enter such a niche market validates the approach and legitimizes the product category. On the other hand, the product, which detractors say is not nearly ergonomic enough, may cause confusion in the marketplace.

The Natural is good in that it widens the space between hands at the keyboard, but that's the extent of its ergonomic design, said Joseph Meshi, executive vice president of Genovation Inc. The design is static; it doesn't allow the two parts of the keyboard to be angled or rotated to a degree of natural comfort for the user, he said. "It's not a natural keyboard. It's a less-unnatural keyboard," he said. Also, in Meshi's opinion, providing a wrist rest is a mistake because it tends to keep the hands static and in an unnatural position.

Health Care Keyboard Co. Inc. markets the Comfort Keyboard, an ergonomic unit that was evaluated by Sean O'Brien, a staff member at Spawar. The ability to spread the keyboard apart and to angle the halves (his fit at about a 60-degree angle) to a more comfortable position for his 6-foot, 4-inch body frame lessens the amount of fatigue in his hands, he said. "I'm sold," he said. However, the keyboard won't work for someone who is not a touch typist, particularly if the person angles the keyboard halves as O'Brien has. The position may help the user's hands, but "you'd probably get a neck injury from having to look back and forth" while hunting and pecking at the keys, he noted.

The Comfort Keyboard costs $495, which is a significant leap from the Natural's $85 price. Peter Acly, public relations director for Health Care Keyboard, Wauwatosa, Wis., said government purchasers need to change their mindset about the value of a good ergonomic keyboard. Rather than consider it a commodity item, "people should ask themselves, `How much is comfort worth?' " Acly said. Instead of simply buying the lowest-priced keyboard, purchasers should look at the long-term implications of the purchase in terms of the user's health and productivity.

A high price will not necessarily preclude the purchase of a more ergonomic input device at Spawar, Cantwell said. "The attitude of management here is that if that is what the person really requires, then we'll get it for them," he said. Such decisions often make the most economic sense, he noted. One woman with severe carpal tunnel syndrome had been ordered by her doctor to change jobs so she wouldn't have to sit at a computer all day. But the cost of retraining her for a new job, as well as training a new person to do her job, was going to be very expensive. It was more cost-effective to outfit her computer with a $2,000 voice recognition system, which enabled her to stay in the same job.

Furthermore, with standard-issue keyboards costing $45 to $189, "$85 for a quality keyboard is not expensive by any stretch of the imagination," GTSI's Colangelo said.

The ergonomic keyboard with the closest price to Microsoft's is ErgonomiXX Inc.'s MyKey keyboard, which is $96 on the Army's PC-1 contract.

Fine-Tuning Windows Work

In addition to physically redesigning input devices to be more ergonomic, manufacturers are incorporating Windows-specific function keys and programmable keys and buttons into keyboards, mice and trackballs, all designed to let the user take shortcuts and cut down on repetitive motions.

The Natural, for example, adds three keys beyond the standard 101: two Windows-specific keys and an application key. The Windows keys provide access to the Task Manager, and software programmers can write code that makes use of the application key for program-specific shortcuts and other functions.

Kensington Microware Ltd., San Mateo, Calif., is one of several companies that offer mice and trackballs with programmable function keys. The firm recently introduced versions of its trackballs that feature four programmable buttons, up from two in its previous versions.

Vendors are also incorporating other input devices into their keyboards. In September, Alps Electric (USA) Inc. started shipping the GlidePoint keyboard, which integrates the company's GlidePoint touchpad and three Windows 95 keys into a standard mechanical keyboard.

To select an item, the user taps the touchpad surface or uses one of three programmable buttons. Two of the Windows keys bring up the task list. The third key acts as the right mouse button. The design also features an Erase-Eaze key on the left one-third of the space bar. The key can be programmed to backspace and delete when struck. According to an Alps representative, the company has added this key to all its new keyboard models.

The GlidePoint keyboards are selling well in the government market because they combine an ergonomic pointing device with a keyboard at a price that is no more expensive than a standard keyboard plus a mouse, said Peter Bianchetta, vice president of Video and Telecommunications Inc., a Springfield, Va., reseller. The GlidePoint keyboards carry a General Services Administration price of $92.

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Harbert is a free-lance writer based in Andover, Mass.

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