by Michael Shapiro | October 22, 2012

Jorno folding keyboardThis past Tuesday, Scott Starrett's Jorno folding Bluetooth keyboard exceeded its fundraising goal on Kickstarter, a funding platform for projects and products, with less than 24 hours to spare in the campaign. That means Starrett is entitled to invest the $104,609 pledged over the Internet toward the production of the Jorno, to make it a real accessory available for use with the iPad, iPhone and Android mobile devices. What makes the keyboard unique is that it folds up five ways, turning it into a 3-and-a-half-inch square that's actually pocketable. Unfolded, it's a rigid keyboard that can be used on your lap; a detachable cradle keeps a tablet or phone upright, making the mobile-device screen easily viewable while typing.

"Each time I tried a so-called mobile keyboard," Starrett told me during the campaign, "there was always something wrong with it. Like some of the keys were in the wrong place, or when I put it in my lap it would collapse and fall through. Or the feel of the keys was squishy and not what I was used to." The lack of functionality is all the more frustrating, he added, because mobile gadgets have evolved to the point that we can use them to get our work done. Almost. "You do need an input device to capture the full power of your smartphone or tablet," Starrett noted.

And yet the iPad comes so close to being a reasonable laptop substitute that its input shortcomings are especially frustrating, in my opinion. I mean, c'mon, you know you're not going to get much typing done on an iPhone without a proper accessory. But the iPad gets us so much closer. I've observed many fellow conference participants taking notes directly on the iPad during sessions; once you grow accustomed to the on-screen keyboard, taking notes isn't too difficult. Writing up an article based on said notes, however, is another story. What I find particularly interesting are the different creative approaches that technology developers are taking to address that point, and to make the iPad that much more functional for use on the road and on-site.

Touchfire KeyboardFirestarter
Tech pioneer Steve Isaac has given this tablet-input conundrum a lot of thought. In the early '90s he designed one of the first tablet computers, at a company called GO, and he spent many years at Microsoft working on operating systems optimized for mobile devices. When the first iPad debuted he was truly impressed by its typing functionality -- specifically, its improvement over previous tablet devices -- but still he felt that was also the iPad's biggest weakness.

"Input has always been the biggest challenge for tablets," Isaac confirmed. "Being able to keep the portability and the flexibility, and at the same time come up with a viable input mechanism, is a really tough challenge. That's what I've been focused on for a long time."

Isaac collaborated with mechanical engineer and product designer Brad Melmon to develop Touchfire, a fascinatingly simple-looking silicone keyboard that sits on top of the iPad's on-screen keyboard. It's held in place using magnets, and its "keys" are cushioned just enough that you can actually rest your fingers on them without accidentally triggering the iPad's touch keys. In other words, it brings touch-typing to the tablet. And because it's so thin, you can fold it up inside a Smart Cover when you don't need it.

Isaac also relied on a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project. The Touchfire keyboard has been in full production for several months now and is available via the company's website. What strikes me as so elegant about this solution is its portability, its integration with the iPad. It's an accessory, but not a separate device you need to carry around to make the iPad more functional. It's just there. I've just received a sample to try out and will report on it once I've had a chance to use it.

CruxSKUNK keyboardTablet vs. laptop: The Tabtop?
Then there are the portfolio-style keyboard cases that essentially make the iPad look a bit more like a laptop. I haven't had the opportunity to really put one of these to use, but I've never been a fan of the approach. I mean, they provide the keyboard, which is helpful, but essentially you become limited by the form factor of a laptop, only (often) with a substandard keyboard and, in a sense, less mobility than a laptop. In other words, many of these add-ons don't hold the iPad securely in place, so you can't quickly move with the device, at least not without changing its configuration. And in some cases that also makes it difficult to easily switch between typing and using the touchscreen.

That was my thinking, until I came across the CruxSKUNK on Kickstarter -- another project that has since been successfully funded and should be starting production now. Its inventor, Brian Probst, recently returned from a tour of production facilities in China. It's an odd name, CruxSKUNK, but the design really maintains the Apple cool factor -- replicating the aesthetic that really brings a lot of people to Apple products in the first place.

The CruxSKUNK makes the iPad look like a MacBook Air. The iPad fits securely into an anodized aluminum frame, which is attached via hinge to a full-sized keyboard embedded into the same material. And the hinge is 360 degrees, which means you don't have to take the iPad out of its snug frame to use it as a tablet -- you can swivel the keyboard around
underneath the iPad. (When you do want to remove the iPad, however, the demo video suggests that's easy to do.)

The keyboard base itself is a mere 6mm, which the developers claim is the thinnest iPad keyboard accessory in existence. The keyboard pairs with the iPad via Bluetooth, and there's a USB port onboard -- but only to charge the keyboard's internal battery, which Crux says must be done once a month or so.

I was smitten enough by this accessory that I pledged money to the Kickstarter campaign, which essentially means I pre-ordered a CruxSKUNK -- in spite of my previous bias against such a laptop-like design. Was I just swayed by the cool? I'm sure that played a part in it, but also I liked the fact that it's a full-sized keyboard that kind of becomes one with the iPad. When I finally get my hands on one I will report back on it as well.

Just scratching the Surface?
I wrote this post before seeing the commercial for the new Microsoft Surface tablet, due out this week. Clearly, Microsoft is making a big deal about input methods by touting its detachable keyboard. What do you think? Is the iPad the perfect mobile device for meetings, even given its typing shortcomings? Is Microsoft's hardware add-on more practical? Obviously there are myriad input accessories available for the iPad to combat its shortcomings. If you've found any you're particularly fond of, let us know here.