This might seem surprising coming from someone whose first job was for a speech recognition company more than 20 years ago, and whose current company also develops speech recognition software. I’m extremely annoyed at the lack of innovation in keyboards.
It’s not surprising that attention to keyboard design has lagged in recent years, when production of laptops long ago overtook the production of desktop machines, and tablets will soon overtake the combined production of both laptops and desktops. Take a look at this chart from IDC:
If you count cell phones in the mix, the production of desktop computers is a tiny percentage of overall computing devices. Sure, some people use external keyboards with laptops, but overall the need for external keyboards in dwindling.
Unfortunately, laptop keyboards have different design goals than external keyboards. While innovation in external keyboards usually has to do with comfort over long periods of typing, reduction in repetitive stress injuries, etc. laptop keyboards are usually focused on simply fitting into a very narrow space. Other considerations are of course secondary.
The only real innovation in laptop keyboards that I can remember was IBM’s introduction of its butterfly keyboard in the ThinkPad 701 laptop in 1995. The keyboard actually opened up so the size of the keyboard was wider than the actual laptop, giving the user a bigger and presumably more comfortable keyboard. This keyboard would never fly today, because it required more vertical space. In today’s world of ultra-thin laptops, no one would go for a keyboard that made the laptop thicker.
That’s not to say that there is no market for keyboards. Putting aside OEM keyboards sold with desktop computers (which are generally not innovative), and putting aside laptop keyboards, the market for keyboards is still a massive market. Logitech, one of the largest, if not the largest, independent producer of keyboards sold more than $400M in keyboards and keyboard/mouse kits in fiscal year 2013. Add to that other big manufacturers like Microsoft and the dozens of small companies that make keyboards, and that’s still a heck of a lot of keyboards being made every year.
One of the most innovative keyboard designs in my opinion was one developed by a British woman named Lillian Malt. She spent years trying to improve the design of the keyboard, changing the locations of buttons to match the different lengths of individual fingers, putting the most used keys closer to the home row on the keyboard, and other improvements in efficiency. Her keyboard, named the Maltron, was first shown in 1976, and she described it in a 1977 paper. She was even written up in People Magazine the same year. Maltron never became a major manufacturer, and even though its products are still manufactured today, it has a reputation for making very expensive and not particularly well-built products (while crafting something like a wooden cabinet might benefit from a small skilled set of craftsmen, electronics usually benefit from mass-production methods). It has expanded beyond its original keyboard design to add one-handed keyboards, keyboards for quadriplegics that can be used with a mouth stick, etc. but all of its keyboards are priced beyond what most people can afford to pay for a keyboard. They’ve essentially priced themselves such that only people with serious injuries or handicaps, who require their keyboards, would buy them (and probably only with the help of insurance or an employer).
Call it inspired, influenced, whatever, some people call it ripped-off, but another company Kinesis released a very similar keyboard in the early 1990s. By 2002, Kinesis launched a USB version of their keyboard, the Kinesis Advantage, and basically that was the end of their innovation. Neither Maltron nor Kinesis have made any real changes to the design of these keyboards in over a decade.
If you read through Logitech’s annual report one thing that stands out is that wired keyboards are dropping in sales, and wireless keyboards are increasing. That makes sense, but how is it that companies trying to compete in the overall market would not consider these trends and update their products?
These keyboards are already some of the most expensive keyboards on the market, so perhaps the issue is cost. The Kinesis Advantage retails for $299. The Maltron costs £375 (roughly $622). Hard to imagine what they might cost with new technology like bluetooth and backlit keys, right?
I’ve personally used the Kinesis Advantage Pro and think it’s great. When my hands hurt from typing, it relieves my symptoms. However, I rarely use an external keyboard anymore, so it’s therefore rare for me to be able to use it.
Another radical keyboard design that also reaches back about two decades, is the DataHand. No longer produced, and sought after in the second-hand market (an unopened DataHand recently sold on eBay for $2499), the DataHand took an even more radical approach to limiting hand and finger movement than the Maltron and Kinesis keyboards. The DataHand created wells for each finger, and had five buttons accessible from each finger without having to move it out of place. Keys were positioned north, south, east, west and down (really up, down, left, right and forward) and the keyboard could even be used as a mouse without moving your fingers out of place. There’s a video you can watch if you want to see the keyboard in action.
There are even someone trying to re-create the DataHand from scratch. He’s re-creating the 5-way key switches needed for each finger, and claims he’s 70% of the way there. It’s great to see something like this re-created in a public forum, but we’re still talking about a twenty-year-old design.
I’ll just give one more example of an interesting keyboard design, which is interesting for a number of reasons. Around 2004 Linda Marroquin introduced a one-handed keyboard called the FrogPad. The design was based on something a Japanese translator had created to allow him to hold a document in one hand and translate it using his other hand (why he didn’t just use a paper stand I don’t know). The FrogPad was a tiny USB keyboard that was operated with one hand. The keys were full size, the ability to type more letters was gained through the use of chording. Chording is using more than one key at a time to output a single character. The FrogPad went through several iterations over the years, including a Bluetooth version, a touchpad version, an iPad app, etc. The company struggled over the years, however, and the product was not always available. Recently it was announced that a new generation FrogPad, the FrogPad 2, was going to be introduced. Offering modern technology like LED key backlighting, both USB and Bluetooth, the new FrogPad will try to re-introduce the product. While this new generation keyboard was designed in concert with Linda Marroquin, it’s not clear if she is still involved in the company that is now re-introducing it.
In any case, the design dates back over a decade. Maltron is from the 1970s. Kinesis and DataHand are from the 1990s. What happened to innovation in this field?
Interestingly, one of the few companies putting an effort into iterating their ergonomic keyboards is a software company – Microsoft. Microsoft’s Sculpt Ergonomic keyboard was released last year, and seems to be an evolution from earlier ergonomic keyboards that sought to keep the direction of each hand more natural (not parallel). The keys are not tactile, and there is no differentiation in distance for different fingers like the Maltron innovated, but it is a solid well thought out keyboard.
Recently there have been a slew of new keyboards hitting the market whose sole innovation has been to re-introduce mechanical switches under the keys. Mechanical keys generally require more pressure to activate, and offer a tactile feel that many people prefer when typing. Kinesis understood this two decades ago when they created their first ergonomic keyboard, as they worked with keyboard switch manufacturer Cherry to create a tactile switch now called the Cherry MX Brown. For many years Kinesis was the only customer for these switches, but over time they and slight variations on them, became very popular. In a kind of retro-chic movement, keyboard companies have been introducing premium keyboards with mechanical switches that are a throw-back to the earliest computer keyboards. For an interesting look at the various Cherry Switches, used in many many keyboards on the market today, see An introduction to Cherry MX mechanical switches from the Keyboard Company.
Many companies tout how close their keyboards are to the original IBM Model M Keyboards from the 1980s, whose ‘buckling spring’ mechanical switches were considered the pinnacle of tactile keyboard technology. Interestingly, after IBM sold its computer business to China-based Lenovo, the keyboard division was sold off, and modern versions of those keyboards with the same buckling spring keys are now made in Kentucky by the company Unicomp.
Mechanical keys or not, these new keyboards are not really innovative in their design. They are a throwback to earlier keyboards, and not innovative designs to make typing easier, more comfortable, or more ergonomic.
Where does that leave us?
No doubt the rise of notebooks and tablets have shrunk the market for good ergonomic keyboards. Even though notebooks have keyboards, and there are many keyboards designed for tablets, in both cases those keyboard aspire to be thin and flat, putting other considerations to a very second-tier in their design.
The only interesting keyboard I’ve seen recently is more satire than product. It was created by a Dutch design team called Nieuwe Heren, and it’s a keyboard built into a pair of pants. They call it Beauty and the Geek. Not practical, not ergonomic, not comfortable, but interesting at least.
What interesting keyboards have you seen created in the past ten years? I do wonder what the total number of keyboards produced is today compared to twenty years ago. Sure, as a percentage of computing devices, ones that use external keyboards are a much smaller percentage than two decades ago, but there are also a lot more computer users today than there were twenty years ago. Also, considering the premium the advanced ergonomic keyboards like Maltron bring, you’d think that even as a niche, there must be room for innovation when there are companies that exist selling keyboards for more than $500.
So what innovative keyboards have I missed that have been designed in the last ten years? What keyboard do you use? Is there a keyboard you used in the past that you wish there was a modern equivalent to?
p.s. If I left your favorite ergonomic keyboard, maybe Goldtouch, SafeType, Fentek, or any one of the many other keyboard designs I apologize in advance. There is not room nor time to discuss every product in existence.