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The keyboards of tomorrow?

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos notes that the traditional QWERTY keyboard has been under attack for years. Now there's finally something to give it a run for the money.

Can computer users adapt to new types of keyboards?

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This translates to: Sometimes, yes. I'm testing out a FrogPad, a one-handed keyboard, and I accidentally locked the Symbol key, which shifts the input of all the other keys.

The FrogPad is one of a small number of alternative input devices that retrofit keyboards for a world on the go. The 20-key gadget is about the size and shape of a hand. Soon it will come with a clamshell case that will let people plug in a smart phone and use the whole kit like a mini laptop.

Although the keyboard is smaller than traditional models, the keys measure the same--19 millimeters across. "That's for the big American SUV hand," said Linda Marroquin, FrogPad's chief executive. "We want to do everything with one hand. How are you going to do that with 104 keys?"

History has shown that few people will relearn typing skills for the sake of efficiency.

Another device maker, Canesta, has begun to ship the components for its virtual keyboard to handset manufacturers. The device uses a laser image of a full-size keyboard that translates finger movements into keystrokes.

"They have the technology, but they haven't decided what do yet," a Canesta representative said.

The traditional Qwerty keyboard has been under attack for years, mostly by conspiracy theorists who claim that it was foisted on an unsuspecting public by a cabal of 19th-century typesetters.

Mouse inventor Doug Engelbart came up with a variety of multikey input devices that, according to studies, could increase speed and foster collaboration between individuals. History, however, has shown that few people will relearn typing skills for the sake of efficiency.

These keyboard companies are not interested in philosophy, but rather physical space. The growing popularity of intelligent handhelds and even devices such as the iPod mean that many individuals now carry the equivalent of a 1998-era desktop (or desktop drive) in their pocket.

A move toward miniaturization began with the personal digital assistant. Foldable versions of full-size keyboards for PDAs fizzled. Consumers, however, readily adapted to the tiny keys and thumb-typing style of the BlackBerry and Treo 600.

Although it's difficult to say whether these newer devices can hope to rival BlackBerry-style keyboards, the engineering is pretty interesting.

The FrogPad consists of 15 keys that represent letters, numbers and punctuation marks, plus four keys that alternate the symbols for each key--and a Shift key for capitals. The keyboard can also handle page navigation.

Hitting the E key produces an "e," as you might expect. But in combination with other keys, it can type a "z" (E plus Space), an exclamation point (E plus Symbol), a percent symbol (lock the Symbol key and hit E plus Space), the number 6 (E plus Number) or perform the CRTL function (lock the Number key and do a "z").

Key combinations, or chords, are possible, because "the computer doesn't receive the data until you release the key," Marroquin explained. In traditional keyboards, data goes in on the down stroke, which makes chords difficult to process.

The FrogPad's main design feature is that it plays off the natural strength of the human hand. The most common word in English--"the"--is typed by drumming the three middle fingers of your hand. Typing "then" involves dropping the middle finger to hit N. The vowels can all be hit by the index finger, the strongest finger on the hand.

Kenzo Tsubai, co-founder of FrogPad, came up with the concept in the mid-1990s, while he was working as a Japanese-English comic book translator. He needed to hold copy in one hand and type with the other. At the time, Marroquin represented telecommunications carriers in Latin America, a job that saw her undergo a temporary kidnapping in Colombia. (Local hoods grabbed her at the Bogota airport, but when they realized that they had the wrong person, they dropped her back by her luggage). She knew Tsubai's wife and began the process of commercializing his keypad concept.

Initially, the FrogPad is not easy to pick up. The natural inclination is to search for letters by Qwerty, which takes time to unlearn.

The function keys also present a coordination challenge, as the urge is to hit all the necessary keys simultaneously. A capital "L," for example, requires hits on the H key, the Shift key and the space bar. All the chords make you think you're learning to play Deep Purple's "Smoke on the water."

Learning how to lock the function keys gets rid of extra finger movement. The Shift key is also sequential: You hit it and release it, and then the next character is capitalized.

In the end, at any one moment, you are only using a single finger or a finger/thumb chord--the same opposable-thumb, pinching motion that gave us primates the edge over the rodents.

By contrast, Canesta's keyboard takes no new gyrations to learn. Instead, people have to get beyond the lack of keys. As with the FrogPad, they generally stare at their fingers for a while. But on the plus side, it's made of light--so not many crumbs will get caught in it.