By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at 2:00 pm
Last week, right before Apple’s iPhone 3.0 unveiling, I compiled a wish list of things I hoped the company would make possible in the new software. One of my items was the ability to connect external hardware accessories to the iPhone–and, specifically, to enable the use of Think Outside-style folding keyboards.
When I attended the event, I got all excited: One of the first new features Apple disclosed was the ability for software to interface with external devices via the phone’s dock connector or Bluetooth. But none of the examples it gave involved keyboards. And then, during the Q&A session at the end, somebody asked about keyboards and whether iPhone 3.0 would support the Human Interface Design standard that would let keyboards talk to iPhone apps that involve alphanumeric input. The answer: No, no plans for that. I slumped in my seat a little bit.
And today, I perked up: Some clever hackers have modded an infrared keyboard to work with the iPhone. They’re really clever hackers–their mod works with the current version of the iPhone software, and doesn’t require it to be jailbroken. Here’s a demo:
For a number of reasons, I have to temper my excitement. Their mod is a technology demo, not a product you can buy. And if it did become a product you could buy, it would only work with applications designed to support it, if I understand correctly. You couldn’t use it in Apple’s own browser, e-mail, calendar, note-taker, and other apps. In a way, external keyboards are like cut and paste: It may be possible to get them working, kind of, without Apple’s support. But Apple is the only company with the power to make them work the way you really want them to work.
Guessing Apple’s priorities is always a bit risky, but I suspect that external keyboards are way, way down on its to-do list, if they’re not officially banned from it. It surely wouldn’t build an external keyboard itself–it must see the market as limited, and the idea as clunky. And it might see enabling external keyboards as an admission that the iPhone’s keyboardless design has its downsides.
Thinking about external keyboards again has me questioning my hankering for them. If I had one that worked with the iPhone, would I really use it? I’ve owned several in the past, and used them with various PDAs and phones, and while I got good use out of them in some situations (meetings, long plane trips), they didn’t change my life. And the iPhone’s synching capabilities are good enough to eliminate the need for some types of data entry that would otherwise make an external keyboard appealing: There’s no need to enter dozens of contacts into the phone itself when you can wirelessly sync them over from a PC or Mac.
Here’s the thing that leaves me still thinking external keyboards make sense: long weekends. And other short trips. I still don’t want to do anything on an iPhone that involves typing more than about fifteen words at a time, so it’s not a true notebook replacement. But if I had a folding keyboard that worked in every iPhone app, I could leave home for brief, low-pressure excursions and do everything I needed to on my phone. (Um, assuming that wherever I was going had decent 3G coverage, that is–but that’s another blog post.)
Part of me wants to see an iPhone keyboard simply as a matter of principle: As remarkable as the iPhone is, I don’t want it to be limited by Apple’s take on what’s important. External keyboards are kind of ungainly, aren’t as useful as they once were, and probably won’t sell in the millions? Fine–there are still some folks who really, really want them. As today’s keyboard mod shows.