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For years a top maker of PC video game gear, Microsoft is officially bailing out of the joystick, steering wheel and gamepad business.

The company cites faltering demand as the main reason it is discontinuing its game gear line for desktop computers.

"Due to long term category decreases, proliferation of manufacturers and highly competitive pricing, Microsoft has decided to exit the gaming input device marketplace for PCs with our SideWinder line effective immediately," Kim McWhinnie, hardware marketing manager for Microsoft Canada, told globtetechnology.com Friday.

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The termination of the Sidewinder line has been rumoured for weeks on gaming message boards, but Microsoft had not issued an official statement about the fate of its gaming line. The speculation was started by retailers who received the latest version of the company's product catalogue listing products for the back-to-school and Christmas buying season. All references to Sidewinder gear and PC video game peripherals had been removed.

The Sidewinder brand has been a staple in the video game hardware market since it made its debut in 1996. The line included a range of joysticks, steering wheels, gamepads, Internet chat hardware and voice-driven game controllers.

There are no plans to sell the brand to another manufacturer, Microsoft said.

The video game market is booming right now, but Microsoft said it made the decision to get out of the PC game peripherals business due to flagging demand for specialized game hardware.

"While SideWinder devices are very popular, the majority of PC games today are built for a mouse and keyboard interface. The result has been the overall product category has declined worldwide over the last several years," said Ms. McWhinnie.

"Although we are saddened to retire the SideWinder brand, it will enable us to devote more resources towards advancements in our mice, keyboards and broadband networking product lines," she added.

Other vendors are eager to fill the void left by Microsoft in the PC game gear market, though. Saitek Industries, for example, has already announced an aggressive plan to increase its video game hardware manufacturing capacity by 60 per cent. The company makes a range of game gear, including the Cyborg joystick line that has gained cult status among hard-core gamers.

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"With a worldwide market for PC game controllers (sticks, wheels and pads) expected to be worth in excess of $250-million (U.S.) over the coming 12-months, and with Microsoft's recent departure from this market, Saitek is committed to this space and plans to launch three new and exciting product lines to satisfy the market demand," the company said in a statement.

The decision to drop the Sidewinder products did not come as a complete surprise, as Microsoft's long-term commitment to its PC gaming hardware had been questioned in recent months. The company inexplicably failed to develop Windows XP-compatible drivers for some of its products, for example, such as the popular Force Feedback Pro joystick. It has also been devoting substantial resources to its Xbox TV-based video game console, which industry-watchers say the company is selling at a considerable loss in order to secure market share in its battle with Nintendo's GameCube and the market-leading Sony Playstation 2.

The decision does not reflect a retreat from PC gaming, though, the company was quick to point out. Ms. McWhinnie said Microsoft sees "great potential for our mouse and keyboard line as the primary controllers for a broad set of PC games."

It's also business as usual in other areas of the company's hardware-related business. Besides keyboards and mice, Microsoft said it will continue to develop "innovative new products", including broadband network gear for multiplayer gaming and hardware for the company's Xbox TV gaming console.

PC video game software will also remain a focus for Microsoft.

"We have a large team in the Windows division 100 per cent committed to the Windows gaming experience," Ms. McWhinnie said. "There are huge opportunities in this space and we are actually increasing our focus on Windows gaming, with several exciting titles being released this year, including Freelancer, Rise of Nations, Halo for PC, and more."

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Gamers can expect to see deals on Sidewinder hardware in the coming weeks as retailers clear their inventory.

"Availability differs by product, but Microsoft will continue to sell current SideWinder gaming devices while stock is available," Ms. McWhinnie said. "We are working with retailers - who understand the value these products will provide their businesses at reduced prices - to move the product."

Microsoft said it will continue to provide support for Sidewinder products, including making existing drivers and software available through its Web site, but it did not say when this support might end.

"We will continue to include support for those devices in future versions of Windows for as long as the products remain viable," said Ms. McWhinnie. "In much the same way that we have native support built into Windows XP through the use of DirectInput drivers in DirectX, we will continue to enable game developers to support and customize the user's experience as they see fit."

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