“The felt is worn”

I can’t take credit for the recent story about emails not going more than 500 miles. I want to make up for it by posting this completely true story that I personally experienced.

This story takes place in 1996, way back when mice still had balls. At the time, I was working at Microsoft, fielding calls from Microsoft partners, retailers, and customers. The calls ranged from simple customer questions about where to buy some Microsoft product, to extremely complicated licensing questions from major partners. It was generally interesting and often challenging. And once in a while, a question came along that had me in tears.

This one call was from a customer who wanted to complain to Microsoft about the rudeness of independent retail stores. This middle-aged gentleman had a Microsoft mouse that was not working well, and he wanted to buy spare parts. Every store he asked told him that Microsoft does not offer spare parts for their hardware, so he would have to buy a new mouse instead. This is true; you can’t buy spare parts for Microsoft products.

I was puzzled what kind of spare part he wanted to buy, and he seemed upset and almost angry, so I listened to his story in the most polite and patient way I could. As it turns out, his mouse didn’t track the movements very well. He flipped the mouse around and removed the service lid that kept the ball from falling out, and determined that the two shafts that the ball touches were so worn that they needed to be replaced.

I couldn’t imagine how a rubber ball can wear out a plastic rod so much. How much mousing would one have to do? I asked him how he could tell, and he explained that the felt was nearly completely worn away. It exasperated him that he’d need to buy a whole new mouse just because of that little part.

It dawned on me – what he called felt was actually dirt that commonly accumulates on the shafts, causing the shaft to roll unevenly over the ball. In some cases, the dirt can completely prevent the shaft from turning. Everybody must, on occasion, remove their ball and scratch that grime away. (Modern optical mice don’t have this problem, but the grime still accumulates on the small silicone pads where the mouse touches the desk. This is less of a nuisance but can still cause a sort of “sticky” feeling.)

I tried my best to let him down gently; explaining that the rollers aren’t manufactured with felt and that he should, in fact, clean his mouse to reveal smooth plastic shafts. This is why the stores couldn’t help him. He thanked me kindly but I imagine that he must have been deeply embarrassed, sheepishly realizing that he went to all those stores and finally called Microsoft over his misunderstanding.

Only after I hung up, I cracked up laughing and shared the story with my office. I hope he will forgive me for this.

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