Apple eyes E Ink keyboard solutions
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Photo by Jonny Gawler/MacFormat Magazine via Getty Images Israel

QWERTY is not dead yet, but touchscreen and E Ink technology is just waiting for a chance to supplant it

The Wall Street Journal reports that Apple is partnering with Sonder Design, the E Ink keyboard manufacturer, to develop customizable, adaptive layouts for its MacBooks with the goal of a 2018 rollout. Sonder is backed by Foxconn, one of Apple’s major Chinese suppliers, and the E Ink technology allows for users to select from a wide range of layouts beyond the legacy QWERTY one.

Earlier this month, reports had surfaced that Apple was negotiating with the Australian developer for laptop R&D work. Sonder will be debuting its existing E Ink keyboard this year for $199 a unit. Computer keys can now be mapped for different languages, but the mapping is still mainly done on QWERTY layouts so it forces users to adhere to that standard.

The QWERTY layout is derived from a nineteenth-century typewriter keyboard, though the modern versions are heavily modified from the original, purely mechanical systems. So the system has remained in use not simply due to its efficiency, but the momentum of its long lifetime. Other alternative layouts exist, but most alphabetic keyboards in use today are built up from a QWERTY layout.

Of course, since the first commercial successful QWERTY model was designed for English language speakers, the format best works with languages written in the Latin alphabet. A universal touchpad with E Ink would be easier to adapt to languages using non-Latin alphabets, such as Cyrillic and Hindi, or use characters instead of letters, such as Chinese. It would also be more readily customizable for specialist applications in the sciences and media production.

Mechanical conditioning

These designs are possible now because capacitive technology has removed the need for plastic or metal keys. Computer keys work when pressed because they combined mechanical systems with an electronic board underneath. It is possible to take any computer, remove the keys and their flexible attached parts beneath, and type by pressing down on the board itself. But as anyone whose “e” key has fallen off from overuse can tell you, this is not very efficient. Improved systems can register pressure as well as traditional ones now.

Reviewers of these keyboards, though, have found them difficult to adapt to off of a traditional setup, partly because they are more sensitive to pressure. Touch typists who have tried out the system find it to be difficult to adapt to. Self-taught typists will presumably have fewer problems, given that they rely on sight more rather than home key layout.

One of the most common complaints, though, is the result of how we are conditioned from using systems that still have moving parts. The integrated board keys do not “give” when pressed, or just make “natural” clicking noises – they vibrate instead and produce sounds like a mechanical device would. Touchscreen QWERTY keyboards are programmed to “click” for this reason, despite their being no mechanical element. People trained from the start on the layouts without these mechanical features would not register their absence as distractions. And with enough experience, other users would be able to adjust, too. The touchscreen “clicking” noise purely electronic devices use does subconsciously work. The last phone I owned with a mechanical QWERTY layout was a Blackberry Pearl, for instance. The Samsung, Nokia, and Microsoft devices I’ve owned since do not have physical keys, but I no longer recall or notice a significant difference in how I type.

Blackberry is one company still betting on the continued relevance of QWERTY, in fact. While Apple is looking at new universal layouts with E Ink and Microsoft’s engineers envision a future where keyboards are supplanted by virtual assistants and voice recognition, the smartphone manufacturer is sticking to the “old” ways. Blackberry says it will keep a physical keyboard in its upcoming devices, unlike other device manufacturers.

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