Page 1
Standard

Three delayed keyboards (or four future keyboards)

Anyone who has been involved with crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, and particularly those who have backed hardware products, know all about product delays. I’ve written before about how crowdfunding sites are invigorating the hardware startup market, allowing hardware products to reach the market that would never have done so in the past. The flip side is of course that not all the hardware products that receive crowdfunding do in fact reach the market.

Many crowdfunded products have famously failed, such as the Eyez by ZionEyez HD video recording glasses whose principles seemed to simply disappear off the face of the planet without delivering any products (and it’s unclear if they ever worked on their product at all). That case was covered by Forbes and Network World, although it only raises about $350,000. More recently Kickstarter has made it harder for pie-in-the-sky hardware ideas to make it onto the site. One interesting case was the Skarp Laser Razor, which raised over $4 Million on Kickstarter before the site suspended their campaign. The company quickly switched to IndieGoGo and raised over $450,000. Whether Kickstarter was right and the project ultimately fails remains to be seen.

A product doesn’t need to be crowdfunded to be a colossal failure. The Gizmondo handheld gaming console built up a lot of hype before flaming out fast once they launched. I suppose it’s good they at least launched, although it was apparently the worst-selling console of all time, selling less than 25,000 units. The company behind it had apparently burned through $300 Million, most of it in the six months before it declared bankruptcy. In case you were wondering how a company could spend that much money in such a short period of time, you might remember the story of one executive of Gizmondo who the year following the bankruptcy crashed his $2 Million Ferrari Enzo into a poll on the Pacific Coast Highway at such a such speed that he literally split the car in two. It was later found that he had illegally imported over $10 Million worth of sports cars that were being leased in the UK to the US, and then stopped paying the leases.

Now I wanted to look at three keyboards I’ve previously discussed, and see where they fit into this story. I’m not saying these products will fail, and I certainly hope they do not, but some are examples of hardware crowdfunding projects that have been excessively delayed. Two keyboards, the King’s Assembly and the KeyMouse, were crowdfunded. One, the Kinesis Advantage, is an existing keyboard from a longtime keyboard manufacturer, that has been awaiting an update for many years (for example being announced as forthcoming in 2013).

Let’s start with the two crowdfunded keyboards, since they are incredibly similar. Both the King’s Assembly and the KeyMouse are split ergonomic keyboards whose halves can be moved as mice, allowing one to both type and use the mouse without having to ever move your hands off the keyboard. Both raised similar amounts of money (the KA raised just under $240K and the KM raised just over $150K. The KA cost $200 during the campaign (and is currently accepting pre-orders for $320), while the KM cost $299 during the campaign (and is slated to sell for $399 retail). Both keyboards launched their campaigns with non-mechanical key switches, and later updated their designs to support Cherry MX mechanical switches (I suppose if you’re buying a keyboard for $200-300 you expect quality switches). Both companies are beyond their promised ship dates.

The KeyMouse
The KeyMouse

For a long time I suspected the KeyMouse, even though it raised its money later than the King’s Assembly, would ship first. I thought that because the company was out there showing working demonstration hardware of their designs. The KeyMouse was shown at CES 2015 in Las Vegas, and won an Innovation Award at CES 2016, just a few months ago (it was actually announced in November 2015). I didn’t back the KeyMouse, and the updates they’ve posted have been made available only to backers, so it’s not entirely clear what is going on with the product. What I can glean from the comments is that they’ve offered all their backers full refunds, as well as a promise to sell them the final product when released at the same price they paid during the campaign. That seems like a very good way to deal with whatever problem they’re having. Most companies don’t ever offer refunds to Kickstarter campaigns, as it’s not required, and they’ve usually already spent the money. So while I don’t know what happened to cause KM to start offering refunds, it seems a good sign that they’re offering refunds, as it means they’re likely not insolvent. Maybe we’ll see products shipping from them, but don’t hold your breath on seeing it this year.

 

KA Beta Pair Pic from KS
King’s Assembly 3D-Printed Beta (from the back)

The King’s Assembly has never, to my knowledge, actually shown off its prototypes publicly. Some pictures have been released to backers in updates on Kickstarter, and recently they took orders for what they called Beta keyboards, basically prototypes with 3D-printed plastic parts, that they somehow managed to sell to people for $650 each before the Kickstarter units are ready to ship. I suppose it’s pretty clever getting people to pay for your beta testing hardware. It’s a little galling for some KA backers who paid for two units – a final unit when released, and a pre-production unit earlier. That pre-production unit was supposed to be ready a few months after the campaign ended in April 2014. Those backers, who paid $350 for the privilege of getting an early unit in addition to the final one, don’t get the Beta units. I guess if the money and testing received through the beta program help get the product finished, however, people will be happy to get their products in the end. At this point even the Beta units haven’t shipped yet, although they seem to be in some form of final assembly. Once they get to Beta customers, it will be interesting to see people’s reaction to them. I wonder if Beta customers are restricted from posting photos of the units online. We’ll see what happens when they get into customer hands. Even assuming they get them out soon, and they all work perfectly, I wouldn’t expect a final unit to ship from KA before 2017. If they do get the Beta untis out, it will at least show they’ve managed to manufacture working units in some quantity, although that won’t prove that they can mass-produce the product using the money given them by backers in 2014.

Advantage Pro Keyboard
Kinesis Advantage Pro

Back in 2012, an employee of Kinesis started a thread on the Geekhack keyboard forum about what features people would like to see in a future version of the Kinesis Advantage contoured keyboard. I’ve written about the Advantage before (Why haven’t there been any keyboard innovations in decades? and How I would re-design the Kinesis Advantage keyboard). It’s a great keyboard, and I’ve used one myself on and off for years. The thread on Geekhack is actually still active, and there have been some interesting updates in the past four years. Of note, in early 2013, that same employee said the keyboard could be expected that year. As recently as last week, he was saying no date for the release, although other indications show that it is likely to come out this year (and in response to a tweet I sent them, they responded Q2). In the discussion online, it was revealed that the company only has about a dozen employees, and while the Advantage is the company’s most expensive keyboard, it isn’t the company’s most profitable. They sell many more of their less-expensive split adjustable Freestyle line of keyboards, which they’ve updated more frequently, adding for example Bluetooth support. In addition, they sell a line of foot pedals and other accessories.

Other priorities combined with some design problems has led to this delay now of more than four years. In the scheme of things, however, what’s four years? By my reckoning the last major update to the Advantage line was in 2002, when they introduced USB to the keyboard. That’s fourteen years since the last update. The overall design, however, hasn’t changed since it’s launch in 1996, which is twenty years ago. Twenty years selling the same design is pretty long by any reckoning, although Kinesis’ design is certainly modeled, at least in part, on the original Maltron keyboard that was designed in 1976 – so one could argue it’s a forty year old design. I’ve written how I would improve it, although my suggestions from 2014 are mostly functional, not design, changes. One design change that many people have asked for is the ability to split the keyboard into two halves, similar to their Freestyle keyboards. It seems that isn’t in the cards for the update planned this year, but they’ve said it’s not impossible in the future. It’s important to note that while this design update has been delayed, it’s not like the other keyboards which have backers that have put up money for them in advance. Kinesis certainly is under no obligation to update their keyboard, and while many people want an updated version, they’re not financially on the line if Kinesis never updates it.

 

Keyboardio Model 01
Keyboardio Model 01

I know the title of this post mentions three keyboards, but I’m going to mention one last keyboard because technically it’s not late yet. In fact I’ve mentioned this keyboard in at least two previous posts – A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence… and The rise of hardware startups – thank you crowdfunding. The keyboard is the Keyboardio Model 01, and I’ve been following it for quite a long time. If you look at the two previous posts you can see quite a change in its appearance over time. Part of what has been interesting about this keyboard is how much information was shared about its design long before it was crowdfunded on Kickstarter. What started out as an, I guess obsession is not too strong a word, for its designer Jesse Vincent, has been shared all along the way. Jesse started by documenting his keyboard on his blog, as well is in keyboard forums. He went through many many prototypes, and landed in a hardware incubator called Highway1, where he further refined the design. Finally, after years of work, sharing his trials and errors, and even his code, he launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

The campaign was actually quite simple for a crowdfunding campaign. No stretch goals or other oddities. The keyboard was sold for $299. A $999 limited edition actually sold 11 units, amazing to me (to many people it’s probably harder to believe they sold over a thousand keyboards at $299, but while there are many keyboards available for over $299, I don’t know of too many over $999). The Keyboardio folk did a 25 State road trip during the campaign, driving from coast to coast and showing off the keyboard in various maker spaces. In the end, they raised over $650K, more than both the King’s Assembly and the KeyMouse combined. In addition, while I don’t expect the keyboard to ship by its April 2016 date (see, it’s not late yet), I do expect it to ship well in advance of the other two crowdfunded keyboards. There’s no question in my mind that the Keyboardio Model 01 will ship, and not many months after their original ship date.

One can certainly argue that the King’s Assembly and the KeyMouse are much more complicated than the Keyboardio, and that’s mostly true. The Keyboardio has no pointing device (although it can move the mouse position using keys), it doesn’t move, it has many fewer parts, less keys, etc. However, it’s clear from looking at the stories of these keyboards that the Keyboardio was planned out well in advance of being crowdfunded, while the other two were only rough prototypes then (and over a year later for both, they essentially still are).

In the end, we have four new keyboard designs all supposed to be released in the coming year. I hope they all make it to production, and sooner rather than later. This is, to some extent, the beginning of a keyboard renaissance, and in large part it’s due to crowdfunding expanding the hardware market (see The rise of hardware startups – thank you crowdfunding). While not all keyboard crowdfunding campaigns have ended well (such as the failed Multi-Touch glass keyboard), it seems that if keyboards like the above can all reach the market it will encourage others to experiment and come up with new keyboard designs. While hardware crowdfunding has almost always been associated with delays, it’s still a major driver of innovation, and I hope we’ll see more products soon (although if you really want to ship stuff on time, I won’t oppose that).

The end
Advantage Pro Keyboard
Standard

How I would re-design the Kinesis Advantage keyboard

Advantage Pro Keyboard
Kinesis Advantage Pro Keyboard

I’m a fan of the Kinesis Advantage keyboard, but it’s definitely long-in-the-tooth these days. The keyboard’s basic design reaches back over twenty years. The current USB version was introduced in 2002, and I don’t think there have been any significant changes in the past twelve years. I’ve seen rumors of a re-vamped version, but nothing has been released.

As you can tell from my previous posts, I believe there is a big difference between convenience features (such as wireless, backlit keys, etc.) and ergonomic features in keyboards. On the ergonomics side I don’t think Kinesis needs to make many changes to what is a popular design. There are some changes that could be made, such as perhaps splitting the left and right sides, or making the keyboard more adjustable. On the convenience side, however, I think there are a lot of changes Kinesis could make to the keyboard.

Here are my suggestions for the next generation of the Kinesis Advantage:

Cut the cord

When I originally wrote the heading above I was thinking wireless (see below) but the truth is, the one thing that has annoyed me the most over the years about the Advantage is that the USB cable is permanently connected to the keyboard. USB connectors can get damaged, sometimes people want shorter cords, etc. Kinesis should switch to using a USB port instead of a built-in cable, so users can choose the cord length they want to use, and can swap out damaged cables, etc.

Go wireless

Adding wireless to keyboards is relatively cheap and easy these days. Keyboards, being right in front of you on your desk, are an obviously annoying place to have to deal with cables. Add Bluetooth support and a battery that can be charged via USB. The battery should be removable, so it can be replaced as needed (no battery lasts forever).

Backlit keys

Kinesis may have helped create the Cherry MX Brown switches used in the Advantage, but they haven’t kept up with fact that many keyboards available today that use MX Browns also have LED backlighting. In an ideal world anyone using a keyboard would have proper lighting and wouldn’t need backlighting, but when you do need it, it’s nice to have. They should include a way to adjust the level of brightness of the LEDs as well.

Multi-touch touchpad

Take a look at the photo above. See that huge space between the key wells? It’s practically screaming for a touchpad. You could have a touchpad that is the same size as the one on a MacBook Pro in that space, without having to change the spacing of the keyboard at all (they would just need to move the status LEDs). Having it in the middle means it can be used both left-handed and right-handed people. It might not be the most ergonomic of choices, but it would be very useful for those who want it. It could be an optional feature. I’m open to other pointing devices, but this seems ideal from a space usage point of view, and multi-touch enables lots of useful features (like scrolling).

Space below the keyboard

When Kinesis originally designed the Advantage, it was probably used mostly with desktop computers. If people were using laptops, they were huge compared to the ones produced today. One of the things people notice about the Advantage is how tall it is compared to the average keyboard. Considering that the Advantage is wider than most notebook computers today, and that many notebooks like the MacBook Pro/Air are very very thin, it is probably possible to insert a space beneath the keyboard so it can be slid on top of a notebook, covering up the front section of the computer. This would allow the user to get closer to their screen if they want, reducing eye-strain. I haven’t opened up an Advantage to see how close the internals are to the bottom of the case, but I would think this could be done without major changes to the keyboard internals.

Built-in Web Server

The Advantage keyboard has another feature besides its ergonomics that set it apart over a decade ago when it was introduced – it supports programmable macros. Macros are more common these days to be sure, so Kinesis needs to step up its game here as well. One way to do that is to build in a web server, allowing users of the keyboard to connect to it from any device, regardless of platform, and configure the keyboard. This could allow re-mapping keys, seeing what macros are currently set, allowing one to create new macros, etc.

Conclusion

None of the changes are ground-breaking changes that will revolutionize the world of keyboards, but all together I think they will make for a much better product, and something much more enjoyable to use. The Advantage is a great keyboard, but it is definitely showing its age, and these changes would make it competitive with more modern keyboards not just because of its distinctive finger wells, but on every other metric as well.

The end
Early Maltron Keyboard
Standard

Why haven’t there been any keyboard innovations in decades?

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:

IDC-Smart-Connected-Devices

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.

Maltron

Early Maltron Keyboard
Early Maltron Keyboard

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).

Kinesis Advantage

Advantage Pro Keyboard
Kinesis Advantage Pro Keyboard

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.

DataHand

DataHand Keyboard
DataHand Keyboard

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.

FrogPad

FrogPad2 Keyboard
FrogPad2 Keyboard

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?

Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard
Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard

Sculpt Ergonomic

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.

Which Switch?

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.

Beauty and the Geek Keyboard
Beauty and the Geek Keyboard

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.

The end