January 15, 2003
©2003 Rich Stillman, Waystation Partners
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In my 2002 Comdex reports, I described a new keyboard design called the FrogPad. This radical layout uses fifteen keys plus five mode buttons to duplicate all the key codes possible on a standard PC keyboard. Reducing the number of buttons allows larger keys to be placed in a smaller form factor, removing one of the major factors limiting the shrinkage of text entry devices like PDAs, laptops and cell phones - and also, by the way, reducing the complexity and cost of manufacturing keyboards for devices of any size.
Linda Marroquin, the CEO of FrogPad, presented her keyboard at a Comdex panel discussion of mobile devices, which is where I picked up the scent. The trail led me to FrogPad's Web site, which contained one of the best marketing messages I've seen since the DotCom days:
"Frog Design has stated that the width of the keys may be reduced by 8%, and still be fully functional for the big American SUV hand."
I liked the imagery of the "big American SUV hand" so much that I quoted it in my Comdex report. To my surprise, that quote caught the attention of FrogPad, Inc. About two weeks after Comdex, I received an email from the company. And not just from some minion, but from Ms. Marroquin herself, wishing to discuss the design logic behind the FrogPad, the company's marketing strategy, and just how big an "American SUV hand" might be.
I have to comment on Ms. Marroquin's enthusiasm. I've spent time with the very committed CEOs of a number of companies, including Terry Myers of Quarterdeck and Borland's Philippe Kahn. I even had the chance to participate in a small group meeting with Bill Gates in the late 1980s. I've also been exposed to the technology evangelism of people like Guy Kawasaki, formerly of Apple. Linda Marroquin's commitment to her product ranks up there with all of the above. In today's cautious environment gripping investors and inventors, it's refreshing to meet someone who firmly believes in the ability of her product and company to improve the tools a typical worker relies upon to do the job.
Other intended benefits of the FrogPad design:
The design of the FrogPad places the letters so the most commonly entered character sequences are entered by natural finger sequences. This contrasts with the conventional QWERTY keyboard, whose layout has persisted in spite of its origins in the late 19th century as a way to intentionally slow down typists and prevent jammed keys on early mechanical typewriters.
In the simplest demonstration of the FrogPad's design, drumming one's fingers on the keys in the center of the keyboard generates the word "the". The rest of the keys are arranged to allow easy entry of the two and three letter combinations that appear most frequently in English words. Part of the design goal is to reduce the amount of time the same finger is used twice in a row. As a bluegrass banjo player, I'm well acquainted with the speed advantage that can be gained from this approach.
Numbers, symbols, punctuation and less frequently used letters are relegated to a second tier of characters, which are generated using two-key sequences that make use of the modal keys located around the edge of the FrogPad. These keys are used in combination with the letter keys, like a conventional keyboard's shift key. A total of four modal keys, in combination with the fifteen character keys, are used to generate the full PC character set.
Ms. Marroquin gave me my first lesson in FrogPad over the phone, a five minute practical demonstration of the new keyboard's possibilities. You can experiment with the FrogPad as well, without much time or effort. Surf to the picture of the FrogPad keyboard on the company's Web site and use the clipboard to copy it into a Word document. Scale the picture so it will print roughly 3x5 inches - accuracy isn't absolutely necessary for this test. Print the picture (color is best). Lay the paper on a table and try typing a few words or phrases. If you're like me, you'll quickly see the potential in the FrogPad.
During our phone conversation, Ms. Marroquin discussed her company's marketing strategy. FrogPad, Inc. is a very small company selling the concept and design of the Frog Pad. It is not interested in becoming a device manufacturer. Instead, the company is working with hardware developers to exploit the possible applications of a desktop-quality keyboard that measures under five inches wide. A number of device concepts, including mini-laptops, text pagers and PDAs, are displayed on the FrogPad Web site. Ms. Marroquin also discussed her own use of a FrogPad as her primary desktop keyboard. I feel this may be one of the most significant applications for the device. The combination of a small-form or under-desk PC with a flat screen and a FrogPad - or possibly an integrated FrogPad and mouse - would significantly reduce the footprint of the typical office computer. This, in turn, would allow companies to stop designing desks, cubicles and office space around bulky computers. The office real estate that could be saved by eliminating millions of 18 inch wide computer keyboards might justify the cost of the conversion all by itself. However, I don't see that FrogPads can be successful early on as desktop replacements. More about that later.
FrogPad is seeking partners for reasons other than hardware development and production. Since the keyboard layout is dependent on letter usage and character set that varies from one language to another, the company needs to develop language-specific versions of the keyboard. Efforts to do this are underway.
Still, I don't think the FrogPad will follow the unfortunate adoption curve of the Dvorak keyboard, a superior design that could not overcome the entrenched QWERTY standard. The reason for my optimism can be summed up in one word: handhelds.
The portable device industry is in the early stages of mainstream adoption. Tasks currently performed by desktop computers, such as calendaring, email, instant messaging and Web browsing, are moving onto battery-powered devices that can be worn on a belt or thrown in a briefcase or purse. This evolution follows what I call the Swiss Army Knife rule, which has driven the miniaturization and mobilization of everything from screwdrivers to calculators to telephones:
A tool that is useful to me is far more useful if I can keep it with me all the time.
As soon as technology evolves to a point where a tool can be made portable, products appear and markets change. Those whose needs are most urgent, or who are most tolerant of unrefined designs, become early adopters. Mainstream users follow as soon as portable devices come anywhere close to offering the capabilities of desk-bound equipment. If you're skeptical, think about how readily most people have accepted cellular phones in spite of the poor audio quality and unreliable connections that come with the territory.
What has prevented the miniaturization and mobilization of text-intensive applications? It's primarily been human factors - keyboards and screens. And while decent, readable small screens can be created by reducing character size and density (the number of characters visible on the screen at one time), keyboards are pretty much limited by the size of the good old human finger. The Big American SUV Hand is not the only one that has trouble with keys crammed four to the inch, BlackBerry-style. Even the best double-thumb QWERTY keyboard is only good for 10 words per minute, and one of the major advantages of touch typing - the ability to look away from the keyboard while typing - is lost to this kind of miniaturization. Text entry on these early-adopter text devices is a chore that sends even dedicated users of mobile text to their PCs when entering any message longer than a screen or two. Put simply, current keyboard design is the major impediment to mobile text.
The FrogPad could allow mobile device manufacturers to create handheld devices with keyboard input speeds that are competitive with desktop keyboards. The company's claim of 40 words per minute is on a par with a better-than-average typist's speed on a conventional PC (although clearly not up there with the 100-plus words a top-notch typist can achieve). And in the mobile device market, the FrogPad doesn't have to compete with full-sized keyboards, but with double-thumb keyboards and even slower input methods like Graffiti and telephone keypads. Users new to the FrogPad can enter text faster out of the box than they can on more conventional mini-keyboard devices. The learning curve is fairly short, as a few minutes playing with the FrogPad's picture will demonstrate. In the handheld market, where no input technology currently dominates, the FrogPad could have an open field.
Any market acceptance of the FrogPad for mobile devices could enable whole new classes of mobile devices. Does a handheld word processor sound farfetched? Rest assured that a pocket calculator seemed like a ridiculous idea in 1971. Some applications, like spreadsheets, will bump up against the limits of small screen technology until that problem is solved. But applications that can live on a small screen - and there are plenty of those - could move wholesale onto FrogPad-equipped mobile devices.
And here's the cool part: If the FrogPad becomes a mainstream input method for mobile devices, we'll have a whole population well versed in entering text on 15-key pads. In a few years, those people will start comparing their QWERTY desktop keyboards to their mobile devices. And that's the point at which QWERTY will start looking its age.
Still, the FrogPad has a fair chance at winning this market. It's as fast and accurate as a conventional keyboard, and can be built cheaply using today's technology. There may be other devices on the horizon, but as a solution that can work right here and right now, the FrogPad's a real contender.