A quiet subculture has grown up around the notion that computer users can make a personal statement with that common white arrow floating across the screen. Turn it into a dog, a cartoon character, a picture of your husband or a combination of the three if you like.
Now Web designers are using the mouse cursor as a marketing gimmick. One company has morphed it into a research tool, with customers checking word definitions and Internet searches on the fly. Various software packages allow computer users to create their own cursors and alter them in as much time as it takes to change a pair of socks.
The cursor is simply a moving icon, and the software packages some available for free on the Internet provide the ability to animate those icons or put a waving "tail" on the cursor.
"Consumers are really excited by the cursor and its potential, not just to personalize the computer but to get them information that they want when they want it," said Ben Austin, vice president-marketing communications at Comet Systems Inc. in New York.
Some of the cursor software packages include CursorArts' IconForge, Impactsoftware's MicroAngelo and Axialis' AX Cursors.
Cursors slowly have become more sophisticated, almost without notice. An arrow that turns into a hand indicates an interactive opportunity. A hand that turns into an hourglass indicates that the computer is processing information. An hourglass that turns into a circle with a line through it indicates that any attempt to click on the mouse is futile.
Some software packages transform the cursors automatically into such tool icons as pencils, paintbrushes and erasers. A double-sided arrow indicates an opportunity to resize an item on the screen. And there are more.
Why the evolution?
"People would look for the cursor, and it would get hidden on the desktop," said Len Gray, president of Impactsoftware in Chino, Calif. "Microsoft put movement in them so you can see it more easily on the screen. It (animation) also is used for laptops, because on laptops it's even harder to see a cursor.
"People like seeing things move when they're waiting. You can look at the hourglass while it's loading, and that's nicer than looking at the arrow."
But for the cursorphiles out there, those with their own "Web ring," all that pre-loaded Microsoft stuff is pretty boring. The cursorphiles (pages.infinit.net/cumbaya/script.htm) entice people to incorporate cursors that throb, jump, spin and cha-cha. Other cursors lead a string of letters around the page, spelling out the name of a product. Or they give off bubbles as if underwater or waves as if on top of it.
"It's just to get attention on a Web site," said cursorphile Brian Caputo, who offers his cursor script to entertain himself. "But it seems to be very popular. More and more people are trying to make their own Web site and give it something extra."
That includes commercial sites. A company that sells inflatable devices and programs its Web site to turn cursors into an animated air pump will gain that much more attention.
Kevin Daniel of CursorArts in Bend, Ore., estimates that 40 percent of his company's customers are end-users. The rest are commercial or government agencies, with the military for some unknown reason showing a particularly keen interest in cursor transformation. Sales at CursorArts have increased about 40 percent per year for the past two years, Daniel said.
"Some of it (popularity) has to do with branding," Daniel said. "Companies like to have a logo on the cursor. Some are software developers. The default Windows cursor doesn't fit what they're doing in their program. Also, disabled people like to customize cursors for their particular disability. For instance, (people with) some kinds of color blindness can't see some colors."
Comet Systems, whose product is the Comet Cursor, has 50 employees and about 30 million people who have used its software, Austin said. The company has a library of 2,500 cursors, which it updates constantly.
"We maintain a mix of nonlicensed images beach umbrellas and sunglasses and American flags and so on plus licensed images, which require our building a relationship with an entertainment property," Austin said. "So we have Dilbert and Peanuts and South Park cursors, for example."
One Comet Cursor customer, United Media, has constructed five sites that automatically change a visitor's cursor. One of those is www.dilbert.com/comics/dilbert/cursors.html.
"In general, online comic fans are very loyal, coming back on a regular basis to read their favorite strips," said Toby L. Sanders, general manager-online for United Media. "Cursors are a great way for fans to connect with favorite characters. They also are a subtle reminder to check out the latest strips."
Survey company ACNielsen determined that Comet Systems had 14 million unique visitors to its Web site (www.cometsystems.com) in May, making it the 24th most popular site in the world. The traffic has generated large numbers of requests for custom cursors, some of which can become rather offbeat, Austin said.
Perhaps the company's proudest achievement is the cursor that turns into a dictionary, encyclopedia, Web browser or shopping device. Compatible only with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, the cursor provides a pop-up definition of a word, for example, when the user clicks on it.
The shopping cursor provides price comparisons in a partnership with DealTime and PriceGrabber. The partnerships provide Comet Systems with a portion of the revenues on any transactions that come through the cursor.
"We give people the ability to get information right when you want it," Austin said. "We're making the Web more context sensitive. That means giving you the ability to get definitions or search the Internet right when you want it, instead of going to another destination."