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Microsoft, Key Tronic Reach Deal Spokane Company To Make New Ergonomic Keyboard

Michael Murphey Staff writer

Key Tronic Corp. has landed the contract to manufacture the second generation model of Microsoft’s popular ergonomic Natural keyboard.

Spokane-based Key Tronic worked with Microsoft to develop the original version of the Natural, and continues to be the exclusive manufacturer of the keyboard.

“I think this is a pretty huge accomplishment for Key Tronic,” John Barnes, Key Tronic’s manager of marketing and communication, said from Las Vegas Tuesday. “This is right in line with where we’ve been heading from a corporate strategy standpoint.”

Key Tronic and Microsoft announced the deal during Fall Comdex 1997 in Las Vegas. Comdex is the world’s largest computer industry trade show.

The original keyboard has sold more than 2.9 million units since its release in October 1994. The new Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite, will go on sale early in 1998.

“It’s hard to judge what the volumes are going to be,” Barnes said, adding he wouldn’t be surprised if sales of the new model exceed those of the original.

The original Microsoft Natural was one of the computer industry giant’s first ventures into the hardware side of the business.

“Initial feedback has been tremendous and we anticipate this product will be very popular,” Tom Gibbons, Microsoft group product manager, said in a news release Tuesday. “With Key Tronic as a partner, we are confident we can deliver an innovative and quality product quickly to the marketplace.”

Microsoft sought Key Tronic as the manufacturer because of the company’s engineering expertise and its close proximity to Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters. The project was cloaked in secrecy for 18 months as engineers from both companies shuttled between Spokane and Seattle to develop the design.

What they came up with was an irregular shaped keyboard with the keys spread farther apart than on a standard board. The right and left hand groupings of key pads are separated from each other and angled slightly outward.

The new version, Barnes said, will be slightly smaller, with other small variations. And it will sell for slightly less than the current board. Most retailers, Barnes said, offer the Natural for $69.99.

The deal is one of several key contracts Key Tronic has landed with major computer industry players during the past several months.

And the Microsoft name lends bonuses beyond the deal’s cash value.

“Microsoft is one of the best companies you can partner with,” Barnes said. “All the other companies know us and we are anxious to work with them, but a deal like this is something we can use to open other doors.”

Key Tronic is the world’s largest independent producer of keyboards and other input devices. Customers include Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Gateway 2000, Toshiba and Nortel.

, DataTimes

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