What the world needs now: An iOS laptop

An iPad-like device with a physical keyboard would be really cool. And despite Apple's willingness to dump old technologies, I don't think it's a pipe dream.

It happens to me all the time--in coffee shops, at airport gates, during conferences.

Zagg's ZaggFolio
Zagg's ZaggFolio Zagg

I'll be sitting by myself, tapping away on my ZaggFolio, which essentially turns an iPad 2 into an undersized notebook with a high-quality keyboard. A stranger comes up and gawks. Sometimes that person figures out that I'm using an iPad; sometimes he or she thinks it's some amazing new category of device. But both types of folks are instantly smitten. When I explain what I'm doing, they ask me who made the keyboard, and often jot down the name Zagg so they can buy one for themselves.

People get excited over the ZaggFolio (and its cousin, Logitech's iPad 2 Keyboard Case by Zagg) in part because it's a good product. But it's a good product that speaks deeply to a lot of people. As cool as the iPad is, many owners and prospective owners--especially ones who work with words for a living--like the idea of being able to type on a nice, clacky physical keyboard, at least part of the time.

I recently wrote about how using an iPad with a keyboard changed my life. I'm addicted to the 10-hour battery life and am able to focus better on my work, because I spend so much less time futzing with the device itself than I do when I'm using a Windows PC or a Mac. (That's why I prefer the iPad-plus-keyboard setup to something like an 11-inch MacBook Air.)

Zagg's iPad keyboards are better than any others I've seen. But they're not entirely free of downsides. They use Bluetooth to connect to the iPad, so you've got to remember to recharge their batteries occasionally. The iPad sits loose in a little slot in the keyboard, which can be a little precarious, especially if you're trying to balance the assemblage on your lap. And while many of the keyboard commands you'd want work, including cut and paste and tab, others do not. I'd kill to be able to use the arrow keys to move around in Safari.

Really, there's one way to give an iPad a true no-compromise keyboard, and that's for Apple to build a clamshell iPad with a keyboard built right in.

Depending on your perspective, the chances of this happening may seem either vanishingly slight or pretty good. Once Apple has declared a feature to be past its expiration date, it rarely brings it back: The odds that the company will ever release an iPhone with a stylus, for instance, are close to zero. And the iPad's magazine-like form factor is a defining aspect of its personality.

But Apple isn't anti-physical keyboard. Every Mac it sells uses one. It bothered to build support for Bluetooth keyboards into the iPad, and even sells its own iPad-compatible wireless keyboard. In no way has it consigned keyboards to the dustbin of technological history.

It's also clear that iOS is Apple's operating system of the future. It started out on the iPhone, segued onto the iPad, and is now on Apple TV. It'll appear on other sorts of devices, too, and sooner or later, I think it'll show up on ones that feel a bit more like conventional desktop and portable computers. Someday, it may even squeeze Macs as we know them out of Apple's product line.

That's why I don't think that salivating over the idea of an iPad with a keyboard isn't the equivalent of waiting for one with a floppy drive. I don't expect it to arrive immediately, and when it does, I suspect it won't be called an iPad. But I'd be startled if we never get a compact, lightweight Apple mobile device with all the goodness of the iOS, plus a comfy QWERTY keyboard.

In the meantime, I'm happy with my iPad-plus-ZaggFolio setup, and I bet that random passers-by everywhere will continue to stop in their tracks when they see it.

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