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We compute the optical gain of various quantum wells for use in 850 nm lasers. In particular, we investigate compressively strained wells of AlGaInAs, InGaAs, or InGaAsP without any assumptions of the material quality. Reductions of up to 43% in the radiative current and 24% in the sheet carrier density can be expected, compared with GaAs/AlGaAs wells. For the case of vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers and distributed feedback lasers, compressive strain is particularly attractive in reducing the temperature sensitivity and fabrication tolerances for low threshold and efficient operation. © 1997 American Institute of Physics.