New, Upgraded Products Focus on Ease, Efficiency

FOR a software company, Microsoft is concerned about a lot of things that do not appear to have much to do with computer code: microphones, hand-held ``mice,'' and even pretty pictures that sit on a computer screen when it is not in use.

In part, this is the privilege of the industry's most successful company. But in many cases these efforts also tie back to the company's core business of making computers easy to use.

``Go to sleep,'' product manager Bob McBreen tells his computer, so that it will not pay attention to him as he explains the newly upgraded Windows Sound System. The product is designed to make office work more efficient.

``Wake up,'' he says into the microphone, and the computer is back on ``voice pilot,'' responding to simple spoken commands. Sound System hardly removes the need for a keyboard, but it represents a step into the realm of voice control.

Mr. McBreen shows how a written document can be annotated with voice comments. A few spoken words, he says, can convey nuances of meaning to a co-worker that the same written words might fail to convey. ``GREAT product!'' sounds different from a less-enthusiastic ``great product.'' The new version, which will probably sell for around $60, includes an improved microphone bought from an outside supplier.

The computer talks too. It can read back data on a spreadsheet (mostly just numbers for now) so that the user can check it more easily against a paper copy.

Nestle USA's corporate law department in Los Angeles already uses Sound System, and administrator Robin McGregor says she expects to move the office to the upgraded version. ``You don't have to speak as loudly as before,'' she says. Features include voice annotation and a calendar function that alerts her to scheduled meetings. ``The more we have it, ... the more things we find to do with it,'' she adds.

Microsoft is also trying to build better mice, since these palm-held clicking devices are a crucial tool in navigating through the company's flagship Windows software.

Microsoft makes both a desktop mouse and the BallPoint, the version mounted on laptop computers. The mouse was originally designed to be durable and comfortable to use. The desktop version is also made to accommodate lefthanded people. The company has tried to make its mice easier to use with software that, among other things, automatically moves the cursor to the first choice on a menu.

As for the pretty pictures, ``Scenes'' is the latest screen saver, made to keep images from burning onto the screen when the computer is left idle. Instead of using moving images, Scenes presents a succession of still color images, changing each minute or so. Buyers can choose from three collections: impressionist paintings, nature photos, and images from outer space. Users also can add some of their own photographs.

``We thought ... we could give people much richer aesthetic experiences'' at their work stations, says John Monson, the company's art director. The product will be sold in book stores as well as software outlets for around $20.

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