Scatter bluetooth keyboards everywhere


I want to expand on my proposal to standardize connectivity for devices in hotels. Let's add to that and develop a regimen of having bluetooth keyboards everywhere. Every hotel room should have one (or the hotel should at least have one to loan you at the desk.) They should be in every cafe, on the train and every company meeting room and lobby.

They should be on the street, in kiosks. They should be at the train station. Everybody should have one at their house, for guests. And many other places.

We're moving to smaller and smaller portable devices. Not just keyboard-less iPhones and PDAs -- the new rage is ultra-mobile laptops with reduced size keyboards. We want our devices to be smaller, but there's one thing you can't shrink and keep fully usable, and that's the keyboard. Yes, people get fast on their tiny blackberry keyboards, and yes there have been clever inventions like laser projected keyboards, inflatable keyboards and the much-missed butterfly keyboard, but the small ones just can't cut it.

The small screen we seem to deal with. And via goggles or projection, there are ways to make a large screen on a tiny device if we try hard enough. But solving the typing problem requires some grander change, like perfect speech recognition, or alternate ways of typing. Keyboards can be made quite cheaply. One sees them retail for under $10. Not very good ones, but better than you find on any mini-device. Cheap enough that we could indeed make them plentiful, if making them available were considered the expected duty of any host or venue. Now I do want them to be a bit more expensive, as they should have a mouse with them too. (A real mouse, not a touchpad, though no reason you can't have both.)

Now, as I noted before, it would be great to also work out a protocol to let small devices easily get access to better screens too. Every hotel room HDTV should have the VGA and/or DVI cable there to plug your computer in -- we're ready for that now, even without the PDA interface. But the keyboards are cheap and we can make this happen. Then, whenever you see yourself needing to do something complex on your PDA, like write a longer E-mail, you can just look around and there will be a keyboard nearby you can borrow.

There are a few issues that need to be worked out. The keyboards and devices would need to be designed for a simple two-touch pairing algorithm. Touch a button on the keyboard, then confirm on your device. No PIN number but you do need to make sure that it's not possible to accidentally confirm for security reasons. The confirmation could be a gesture on phones that can understand those. Or you could put your device into a 3-touch mode where the device has to be be ready first.

The next hard question is security -- how do we trust the keyboard? We might decide we can trust the keyboards that come from hotels or airlines, but even then there is a risk.

  • Users must remember to never enter passwords on the guest keyboard. Applications that know they are prompting for a password should have a way to actually refuse to let you do this. This means apps have to be aware what keyboard input is coming from, which is no small feat.
  • As an alternative, devices could arrange so that only certain applications can take input from an untrusted keyboard. Those applications would not take input where it could be "dangerous." However, this would be quite limiting as you could not do things like typing in URLs or doing keyboard shortcuts.
  • A malicious keyboard could hijack sessions, though admittedly this is a challenging problem to attack in just a keyboard.

This latter problem is hard to solve. One idea that comes to mind is having a keyboard certification process, and developing a protocol where the keyboard can prove its certification to the device. People with old devices would not get automatic processing of this, but they could still download software to check the certification. This would add to the cost of the keyboard, and be anti-competitive, so I don't like it, but we do need to trust these keyboards. We would have to work hard so that the certifying body was not used to stifle competition, and also to assure that keys of certified keyboards are not compromised.

These are challenging problems, but are worth attacking so that we can free our mobile devices from the constraints of keyboard and mouse design.

(And yes, I know the first-edition iPhone was so braindead as to not be able to use a wireless keyboard. Let's hope that's fixed on Monday.)


So... What would be your choice for the above? I'm looking at the ASUS Eee PC. Anything else compare? I'm at the crossroads of buying either a smartphone or pda or one of these... For the price, looks like it might be my best best over a phone for functionality, at least until the next gen of smartphones emerges...

The new intel Atom, including the supposed dual-core one, looks like it should break this market wide open. The MSI Wind looks much better for the price than the ASUS.

Ideally you want a processor that can go really low-power for ordinary stuff, but has the ability to peak to do fancy things like videoconferencing, or playing HDTV.

If we got these keyboards everywhere, and we got hotels providing computer inputs on the flat panel HDTVs they are all installing, then my choice might move to something even smaller. The smaller it is, the more you will have it with you, but the less often you will accept it as all you need -- unless you can readily dock it all over the place and get stuff done that needs a screen, mouse and keyboard.

I think we'll see a lot of movement here. On the other hand, EEEPCs and the Wind are cheap enough you won't go bad buying one and getting something better in a year.

That really helps me sort thru the options and it should be available shortly! Perfect!

Dear Brad,

Enjoyed the post on the idea of wireless keyboards everywhere (or at least in all hotels/airports/stations etc). I too have tried to balance up the pros and cons of ultra mobile devices. When i was working out in Austria in a ski resort i purchased an Acer N50 Pda. At the time it cost about 200 pounds but has been well worth the money. My main reasons for buying the device were.

I wanted something that booted fast.

that i could carry with me when skiing or snowboarding.

capable of both bluetooth and wifi connectivity

which could use skype. (cheap calls to the uk and also belgium)

which i could easily carry a spare battery in case of emergency.

that would consume the least amount of energy and charge quickly also

that had vast expansion options such as wireless headsets, adding harddrives or GPS

that i could email and browse the web with

so i bought the device with the idea of potential. It offered alot compared to a laptop but there were several lacking points.

rubbish mini jack stereo connection (if they had bothered to increase the size to a normal 3.5 mm jack which would have fit or simply offered a decent stereo connecting jack with the pda) they dont even sell one now and i believe you can buy one from only one specialist on the web. still the nano's sound quality, size, price and userbility far superceeds the PDA.

the bluetooth wireless headset does not connect well with the pda and skype would not accept it, this being the case skype has to be used using the internal microphone (you cannot even add a handsfree type kit) so quality is way down on the call.

Despite all this i have found it makes for an awesome mobile internet browser and emailing device when abroad. I purchased a cable to allow me to connect usb directly to the pda circumventing the need for the bulky cradle. then i bought a small usb keyboard. this now means i can keep in contact with my family, friends or work whilst abroad. As was the case when i was again skiing this time on holiday in france. All these devices fit easily into the glove box of my vauxhall corsa (not a big glove box) and since i use the Pda as my GPS too (in conjuction with a holux bluetooth reciever) they are ideal for this sort of travel.

Lastly i wanted to say. It doesnt really have to be wireless keyboards. Many times i have borrowed a usb keyboard and plugged it into the pda via the acer cable (some of them with touch pads) and they work a treat. i might add these are cheaper too (than bluetooth ones). I do not know whether they consume more or less than the bluetooth chip so could not say whether overall they consume more or less power. If you were talking about making connectivity more ubiquitous you have to really suggest to manufacturers they stop making their connecting devices so unique. If my PDA had a mini usb device connector instead of its acer type connector then im sure that you could get away with leaving the charging cable at home too, usb is now quite universal as the name suggests (and fairly standard). i hear now you can also buy cheaper rollup waterproof usb keyboards designed for boats. (but really i think they had long boring ski lifts in mind too)

I really liked your ideas on the wireless though.

I love the idea! For some time, I've been trying to fight arm stretch by investigating ways to move most of my data either into the cloud or onto USB sticks. Then I can try to use smaller UMPC/MID devices for even 50% of the time. Travelling lighter is liberating and smaller devices are less geeky in places like restaurants, etc. And, as a side effect, by being mostly browser based, it's another way to trying to free myself from the MSFT empire of buggy and bloated desktop software.

With that in mind, I did start using an Asus eeePC when they came out, partly because they were so cheap that the experiment would be low risk. Overall, I liked the experience, apart from the mediocre industrial design by Asus (think Brother printer vs. HP printer) and the small keyboard. I'm convinced that better industrial design is already here from other vendors, so being able to use detachable bluetooth keyboards might well be the final missing link.


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