Tuesday, May 20, 2008

eBooks and the Future of the Keyboard

Nicholas Negroponte announced his vision for the next generation OLPC (one laptop per child). The new design takes its inspiration from a book although it can still be used as a laptop. Having worked on eBook concepts in the past, I've always felt that a dual-screened ebook was taking the "book" metaphor too seriously. But the new OLPC design uses the 2nd screen as a keyboard when in "laptop" mode. I thought this was a decent idea. It would enable the display of virtual keyboards in every language where the OLPC is used.

I recently started to wonder if Apple will do something similar since Steve Jobs hates button clutter and it would allow him to get rid of 30 or 40 keys in one action. They easiest way to get rid of 10 keys on a remote or cell phone is to move the number keys off the keypad and onto the screen. This is exactly what Steve Jobs did with the iPhone. Similarly, the best way to get rid of the visually-busy keyboard on a laptop would be to replace it with some sort of virtual one. This would allow Apple to replace the entire surface with a multi-touch touchpad. They could easily create a modal version that could be backlit with a keyboard layout when needed but appear empty and pristine otherwise. Of course the major challenge to this is losing the tactile feedback a physical keyboard provides. But there are work-arounds to this such as haptic feedback. Steve is just the guy to make the jump because he has shown a consistent interest in removing buttons in the past starting with his resistance to a 2 button mouse, then with the utter simplicity of the iPod clickwheel and most recently with iPhone's 1 button. Even the MacBook Air forgoes an explicit power button in favor of the inferred intent of simply opening it up.

Multi-touch seems to be gaining momentum with Jeff Han's TED demos, Microsoft's Touchwall and even some of the Wii hacks for interactive displays. Since Apple was first to market with a successful product, I would bet that they want to push to broaden their lead with yet another product. But I don't think it will happen at this year's Apple WWDC as the upcoming 3G iPhone will probably be the star. Maybe MacWorld 2009. I type a lot but I'd probably by one.

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