July 15, 2010


Microsoft Arc Keyboard in White. Windows 7/Vista/XP or Mac OS v. 10.4-10.6X. Microsoft. $59.95.

Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 Studio Series. Windows 7/Vista/XP or Mac OS v. 10.4-10.6X. Microsoft. $29.95.

     To start with, and with apologies to Gertrude Stein, a rose is a rose is a rose. To continue, with apologies to an old and little-lamented TV show called “Mr. Ed,” a horse is a horse, of course, of course. But then again, with apologies to George and Ira Gershwin, it ain’t necessarily so.

     Because, you see, a keyboard isn’t necessarily a keyboard isn’t necessarily a keyboard, and a mouse (computer type) isn’t necessarily a mouse isn’t necessarily a mouse.

     Look at it this way: we live in the age of personalizing personal technology. All computers basically do the same thing – some just do it faster than others, or with a slight operating-system twist, or with a different on-screen appearance. All keyboards are input devices, and as long as they are QWERTY designs, they are all basically the same – some are just bigger or smaller, curved differently, powered differently, and so on. And all the ubiquitous computer mice are also all input devices, and they too are all the same, given some differences in shape, number of buttons and other matters that – let’s face it – are minor in terms of their basic functionality.

     So how can companies personalize these essentially identical devices? And how can retailers persuade people to buy them at Retailer X rather than Retailer Y – on any basis other than price or, perhaps, convenience of store location or ease of delivery?

     Well, it can be done, and Microsoft’s scrappy hardware division – a comparatively small part of a huge company – is one group that has some creative ways to do it. American architect Louis Sullivan’s famous phrase, “Form follows function,” is only part of the creativity here. For it turns out that, in computer hardware, several forms can follow what is essentially the same function, and that opens up a chance to allow individual sellers and individual buyers to segment the market in ways that allow everyone stand out who wants to do so.

     There will always be dryasdust corporate bosses and IT departments that insist on conformity of equipment, but companies are increasingly coming to realize that allowing employees to express some individuality gives them a feeling of greater control over their environment – and that produces significant increases in job satisfaction and psychological well-being. And if individuality can be expressed in ways that cost no more than conformity, then even firms’ accounting departments should be happy (although there are no guarantees!).

     Here is what that means in practical terms. Not long ago, Microsoft introduced the Arc Keyboard, a nifty wireless keyboard specifically designed for casual use. It weighed less than a pound and measured only about 12 by six inches – roughly two-thirds the size of most full-featured wireless keyboards. And it was full-featured, although some of its design elements took a little time for some users to get used to. Things not requiring accommodation were the keyboard layout, full-size keys, and key action (positive, easy to depress, forthright in operation). The space bar was full size, and the Tab, Caps Lock, Shift, Ctrl, Alt, Enter and Backspace keys were in expected positions and of expected sizes. There were some compromises, to be sure. The top row of keys – above the numbers and Backspace key – was small and arranged nontraditionally. At the far left was the Esc key – a good position. But only the next six keys were F keys, each doing double duty: to use F7 through F12, you needed to depress the Fn key as well as the F key. The not-very-large Fn key was placed second from the right in the bottom row – not a particularly intuitive location. But these and a few other nits aside, the keyboard was a clever design that worked well and that may have filled a market niche – or may have helped create one, by suggesting that people who move around a lot while working but really want an external keyboard should try this one.

     Now Microsoft has gone a step further both for end users and for retailers. Now the Arc Keyboard comes in a really attractive white color in addition to the original black; and the white version is bright green on the bottom; and that color also appears on the keys. Does this have anything to do with functionality? Nothing whatsoever. But it really does look neat – there is no other keyboard like it out there. And it is therefore an excellent way to personalize a computer while spending no more than the (reasonable) cost of the black version. But that is only the benefit for end users. The benefit for retailers is that the white Arc Keyboard is not universally available: it is a “product exclusive” for Amazon.com. So anyone who really wants this particular bit of personal personal computer equipment has only one place to get it, at least for the time being.

     But wait – there’s more! Anyone using a personalized external keyboard is going to want a personalized external mouse to go with it. Microsoft Hardware has an answer there as well. On the low end, mice are a dime a dozen these days – well, not literally, but they can be extremely inexpensive, to the point of almost being throwaways. On the high end, they can be feature-packed but costly enough so a corporate IT department, a small business or an individual user might hesitate to make the investment. But there is a “sweet spot” in the market, around the $30 level, at which a mouse can have lots of features (if not every available one) and plenty of style. Microsoft does make an Arc Mouse, but at $49.95, it is priced a bit higher than the “sweet spot.” So now would-be personalizers have an alternative – or three alternatives, actually. They are the mice in the company’s Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 Studio Series. Functionally, they do no more and no less than you would expect of a Microsoft mouse priced at $29.95: they use the company’s BlueTrack technology for pointing accuracy on multiple surfaces, are powered by a nano transceiver (as is the Arc Keyboard) rather than a standard-size USB connector, and have a low-power warning indicator that Microsoft says you probably won’t need for about eight months after inserting a new battery. Functionally, none of this is a big deal. But the form – or rather the appearance – is what makes these mice attractive. They are very colorful and available in three patterns. One, “Geode,” is asymmetrical and in multiple shades of green; the second, “Folk,” is a swirly dark-pink symmetrical design; and the third, “Wave,” is a fairly dizzying multicolor, multi-shape design for people who want things as colorful as possible. The colors are simply overlays on what is, underneath it all, just a black mouse. But so what? If the price is right, the function is fine and the color is attractive, why not use one of these instead of a more basic-looking mouse? That is certainly what the folks at Best Buy will tell you – because the Studio Series was designed to be sold exclusively at Best Buy stores (again, at least for the time being).

     So here we have a highly modern melding of form and function. In basic form, the Arc Keyboard and Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 Studio Series are much like other products that do the same things. But they do not quite look the same as other pieces of similar hardware, and in the case of the keyboard, they do not operate in exactly the same way, either. At a time when a slowly improving economy is insufficient to make workers feel pride and involvement in their jobs – many are just glad they have jobs – a small investment that allows people to feel more in control of their lives may make good business sense. It may make plenty of sense for small companies and individual workers, too – perhaps offering only a slight edge in self-esteem, but any advantage can be worthwhile in the current business climate. Certainly Amazon.com and Best Buy are hoping that enough people feel that way to drive some extra buying traffic in their directions.

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