And, of course, it’s no longer available. This device is just one of the many items whose demand appears strong regardless of the fact that their manufacturers have inexplicably decided to discontinue making them. A quick search on eBay produces a handful of Trackball Explorers, each fetching at least $100 (often a lot more; recently even several hundred dollars!) That’s pretty good for a device that one could pick up from a local computer retailer, or from the web for $39.95 few years back!
Today the mainstream trackball alternatives include Logitech and Kensington models (plus some more industrial, or “80′s looking” trackballs by ITAC and Evergreen Systems). None of the currently available models come anywhere close to the ergonomy of Microsoft’s Trackball Explorer, and this sentiment is echoed on countless hardware review forums on the web.
Was the demand really so minimal for the trackballs that it wasn’t worth it for Microsoft to continue manufacturing it? Perhaps the sales weren’t as strong as they’re “supposed” to be for this kind of a device—perhaps when compared to the sales figures of mouses. But my guess is there are quite a few people out there who would be more than happy to pay, say, $69.95 for the (perhaps even slighly improved) device rather than scouring the dwindling sources for the trackball, or settle for another manufacturer’s best model that the “late” MS Trackball Explorer beat hands down. Today Microsoft offers just mouses for pointing devices — but a mouse won’t always do. Oftentimes the available desk-space is limited — there is no space to move the mouse around (whereas, of course, a trackball is stationary). And more importantly—especially when using 3D or CAD applications—mouse is less accurate. When you’ve placed the cursor on the exact pixel you want it to be on, with trackball you can then remove your finger from the ball before releasing the button to get a positively accurate placement. With a mouse the action of releasing the depressed button moves the mouse enough so that the cursor is moved a pixel or two before the ‘drop’ action occurs.
I have written Microsoft a few times regarding this issue, and it’s likely few other people have done so, too. There has never been a response, probably because their trackballs are gone, period. If Microsoft is not going to bring it back, it would be a great business idea for someone to revive a truely ergonomic trackball… there would be many users who would be glad to pay, say, the aforementioned $69.95 for a well designed, professional trackball, the “Trackball Explorer 2.0″.
To get an update on TBE I contacted Edelman | Seattle yesterday. The original contact, Kerry Gentes, was no longer with the company and I spoke with Brittany Turner instead. According to her Microsoft’s stance on the issue has not changed; they are still not listening to what their customers want (she didn’t use those words exactly, but that’s basically what it boils down to).
Microsoft is also not willing to license the device at this time.
This puzzles me. Microsoft bases their decision not to continue manufacturing and marketing the device on a “strategic decision” to concentrate on mouse devices because the market share trackballs hold is “insignificant”. I’m sure the sales figures for mouses are greater than for trackballs, but it’s the same situation between any consumer and “pro” product. Most people who go to buy a computer at Fry’s or Best Buy automatically buy a mouse as the computer comes with one. In many cases it’s a Microsoft mouse, so naturally Microsoft sells a lot of them. However, unlike many other devices, there is no viable alternative for the Trackball Explorer, and the “strategic decision” to not sell them makes a significant number of users rather unhappy. If you go to a computer or office supply store they may carry a Logitech or Kensington model or two whose ergonomics simply have nothing on the TBE. Microsoft could easily hold that shelf-space instead simply by resuming the manufacture of the already existing product which even has up-to-date drivers (Vista compatible, etc.)
If Microsoft doesn’t feel like investing more R&D funds to the TBE at this point, they could use the exact same design as TBE 1.0. They might change its colors slightly to match the current product line and slap on a price tag equivalent to that of Kensington Expert Mouse ($99.99, or perhaps a little more competitively at $74.95) and it would sell like hot cakes. It would still sell fairly strongly even if the price tag was $149.99, just as long as it would be available (recent prices for functional units sold on eBay have fetched $400+). Surely the sales figures would not reach those of mouses, but then Microsoft also sells many more of the consumer licenses than professional licenses to its operating systems for the same exact reason – most computers sold come readily with “Windows Vista Home” installed. Yet lower sales figures for the “Pro” versions of the operating system products, for example, don’t result in pulling a product from the market.
Microsoft’s unreachability and inertness regarding this issue is very frustrating. You’d have to look hard for a product that so many users feel so strongly about (just read the comments in this blog for a small sampling of TBE users who have searched the web, come across this blog, and decided to post!) If Microsoft discontinued a particular mouse, nobody would think twice of it – they’d just pick up a newer (or, perhaps, a competitor’s) model. Same goes for most anything I can think of – there’re always alternatives. In most cases a new, improved versions of the older products are made available by the same manufacturer. Unfortunately the situation with the TBE serves to illustrate the way Microsoft is going: business decisions are made internally without paying too much (or any) attention to the customer feedback. This, also, is why the agile younger companies like Google are gradually eating away Microsoft’s market share in many areas of business. When the time comes to make a choice between a Microsoft product that does have competitive alternatives – and most do – users who were shorted by Microsoft previously are more likely to choose a competitor’s product, especially if the competitor appears more responsive to customer feedback.
Microsoft Trackball Explorer