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One engineer, given the moniker "Teflon Tim" by amused colleagues, spent three months scouring the Far East to find just the right nonstick coatings and sound-deadening foam. Another spent hours taking apart wind-up toys. Others pored over the contours of luxury BMW motorcycles, searching for designs to crib. They were members of a most unusual team that spent thousands of hours during the past two years on a single goal: to build a better mouse.
Logitech International's (LOGI) $99 "MX Revo- lution," which hit consumer electronics shelves on Aug. 24, represents the company's most ambitious attempt yet to refashion the lowly computer mouse into a kind of control center for a host of PC applications. The sheer scope of the secret mission -- which crammed 420 components, including a tiny motor, into a palm-sized device that usually holds about 20 -- brought together nearly three dozen engineers, designers, and marketers from around the globe. "Our business is about the last inch between people and content and technology, and the mouse has always been the icon of that last inch," CEO Guerrino De Luca explains.
Part of Logitech's strategy is defensive. Once content to design mice, keyboards, and other peripherals for PC makers to slap their own names on, Logitech over the past half-decade has increasingly focused on selling its branded add-on equipment directly to consumers. Some 88% of Logitech's $1.9 billion in annual sales comes from retail. But the industry leader is facing strong challenges from Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Chinese makers.
That forces Logitech to rely on delivering improvements every two years to entice shoppers. "We think of mice as pretty simple, but there's a pretty aggressive technology battle going on to prove what the mouse can do," says NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker. "The real challenge is proving those technology upgrades are relevant to people."
REINVENTING THE WHEEL
Last year, Logitech struck gold with its $99 laser mouse for gamers, which offered precise tracking on more surfaces and faster response. Even so, the company's engineers and executives were at first skeptical they could deliver a product that substantially upped the ante. "The goal was passing the 'ooooh' test -- creating a visceral experience that communicates both performance and luxury," says project leader Erik Charlton.
To do that, Logitech literally had to reinvent the wheel. On the MX Revolution, a new plated brass-and-rubber scroll wheel can sense users' intentions based on the type of document they open. It can either zoom through dozens of pages at the flick of a finger or ratchet down, line by line, for slower viewing. A second wheel on the left magnifies or reduces text or can be used to flip between applications. Another button, below the front scroll wheel, lets users highlight text and instantly calls up either Google (GOOG) or Yahoo! (YHOO) searches of that text.
Adding all those new capabilities required writing thousands of lines of software code. But the intention was to make things simpler for PC users, who must constantly switch between applications and Web pages. Indeed, company researchers discovered that users on average finger-scroll through 26 feet of documents daily.
Now, with eight MX Revolutions per second rolling off Chinese production lines, the question is: Will this mouse roar with those consumers?
By Cliff Edwards