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Apple's rumored iPad keyboard? Bring it on, say keyboard makers

A blog post earlier this week said Apple was prototyping its own iPad keyboard. Vendors like Logitech say they would welcome the company.

Apple iPad meets Logitech keyboard
Apple iPad meets Logitech keyboard.
Sarah Tew/CNET
The day before Apple unveiled the iPad Air and iPad Mini with Retina Display, former Apple employee Jamie Ryan blogged that a few people at the company had told him Apple was prototyping an integrated iPad keyboard, a la the Microsoft Surface.

It was only a blog post, and Apple ended up not announcing a tablet keyboard (though CNET's Dan Farber makes the case for Apple to build one here.) But if Apple were to join the tablet keyboard game, it would be a soul crusher for the third party-vendors that already make keyboards for the iPad, right?

Maybe not.

There are a handful of players who already fill the gap that Apple has left open for the iPad, and they insist that they will be just fine if Apple enters the market. Mike Culver, vice president of the mobility business group at Logitech, the market leader in the category, said that he's surprised that a lot of the people he talks to don't even know that there are keyboards available for iPads. "If ever there were an awareness problem, that would be solved overnight," he said.

Of course, that sounds like posturing, and typical corporate spin, trying to turn lemons into lemonade. But at least one impartial party agrees that it wouldn't be a deadly blow.

"[They are] not afraid," said Stephen Baker, a senior analyst at research firm NPD. "These are businesses that have room for everyone. They compete with Apple in lots of products and aren't afraid of them."

He's talking about all the other accessories third-party vendors make. Logitech, which makes its UltraThin Keyboard Cover, also makes other Apple accessories like regular iPad covers. Ditto with ZAGG, which makes the ZAGGkeys ProFolio+ keyboard. Same with Kensington, Belkin and Targus, who round out the top five iPad keyboard makers, according to NPD. So these guys are used to competing with the official Apple brand. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Culver brings up the "science of typing" when he talks about the crafting a keyboard designed for a tablet as opposed to a PC. For example, key spacing on his keyboard's keys are 16 millimeters instead of the traditional 19 millimeters. And after customer data told the company that the "caps lock" and "tab" keys were less important than the rest, the designers were able to play with their location on the keyboard to economize space. Other keyboards have added flourishes of their own, like the ZAGGkeys ProFolio+'s backlighting.

The market is still small. Out of the entire tablet cover market, those that include keyboards -- the category that the above Logitech and ZAGG products fall into -- account for only 10 percent of it, according to NPD. Indeed, Culver said the $94.99 keyboards account for less than 10 percent of what Logitech makes. And though the market is growing, that growth is slowing: Growth rates for keyboard cases doubled this year, but the year before that, they were up 225 percent.

Baker said it's a sign that the market is starting to mature. Earlier this week, Gartner released a report noting the torrid growth of tablets, estimating that they would surpass both desktops and notebooks combined by 2015. But much of the growth, Baker said, is in smaller tablets -- ones that are not exactly keyboard friendly.

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Of course, Steve Jobs touted the post-PC era back when he announced the iPad 2. And if it will truly make the PC obsolete, perhaps Apple needs to jump-start the use of keyboards with tablets. iPads are increasingly enterprise tools. The Microsoft Surface, or course, has a keyboard cover, but as well designed as it is, that tablet's market share is still too minuscule to move the needle on integrated keyboards.

So why hasn't Apple released its own integrated keyboard yet (besides the iPad keyboard doc that it introduced in 2010, then discontinued in favor of the blue tooth version)? Apple only introduces products when the market is large enough, and it has something that can distinguish it from the rest, Baker noted. Right now, probably neither is the case.

In the meantime, Apple's would-be keyboard competitors await Cupertino's entrance into the race, if it ever happens. But they are not too worried. "If Apple makes the market grow, there's a lot of upside opportunity," Culver said.

Correction, 11:45 a.m. PT: This article has been updated to reflect that Logitech does not make iPhone chargers.