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FrogPad aims to cut keyboard size

The start-up this week is actively marketing a 20-key keyboard, which measures three inches by five inches--about the size of a personal digital assistant.

LAS VEGAS--FrogPad is out to make the keyboard the size of your palm.

The five-employee, Houston-based start-up is actively marketing a fully functional, 20-key keyboard at Comdex this week, which measures 3 inches by 5 inches--about the same size as a personal digital assistant. The typical keyboard contains 128 keys and is more than a foot long.

The size reduction is possible through a close analysis of human anthropology and typing styles, according to Linda Marroquin, FrogPad's CEO. The 15 letters featured at the center of FrogPad's keyboard--a selection which includes the letters "T," "A," "E" and "H"--represent approximately 86 percent of average keyboard activity of English-language typists. Hitting a Shift key at the bottom of the green keyboard in conjunction with one of the 15 central keys leads to the rest of the alphabet.

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Similarly, punching the Number key allows a person to type in numbers, while the Symbol key lets users type in parenthesis and other punctuation marks.

Alternatives to the standard QWERTY keyboard have long been a quest for many high-tech companies. Doug Engelbart has advocated use of the device he invented, the computer mouse. Microsoft and others have tried to popularize handwriting or voice recognition as an alternative to typing. Other companies have designed holographic keyboards.

Although these gyrations might not be necessary on a standard keyboard, the techniques are not that tough to learn, said Atin Patel, a representative from Gennum, a Canadian company that is helping FrogPad to come out with a version that can connect through Bluetooth in the first quarter.

In studies at Rice University, students were able to type 40 words per minute after eight to 10 hours of training, he said. While FrogPad came up with the concept, Ideo came up with the design, said Marroquin.

The keyboard is largely aimed at target markets. Engineers working on CAD (computer-aided design) applications often like to keep one hand on a mouse at all times, said Marroquin. With FrogPad, a CAD user can continue to use the mouse and input data through the keyboard. Similarly, people with disabilities can more readily type.

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"You operate it with two fingers," Patel said.

A version of the pad that can be attached through a USB (universal serial bus) cable came out in October and is listed on at $169.99. A version that will connect through Bluetooth, tentatively called Blue Frog, will come out in the first quarter, Marroquin and Patel said. Apple Computer, among other computer makers, is exploring the idea of bundling the keyboard with computers.