The IFA Consumer Electronics trade show in Berlin is a gargantuan place. A total of 27 halls chock full of so many new washing machines, refrigerators, and every other form of consumer item that it required two of us four days to see it all this year.
Once you get past the first two days of press conferences, where at times four consecutive one hour conferences are being held, you get to the smaller stands grouped according to industry segment and at each stand, each reporter has no more than a few minutes in which to make up his/her mind if there's something worth reporting on, get their hands on it, work out what the main features and benefits are, shoot the pics and videos, get the info relevant by speaking to the press rep, then repeat the process at the next stand, for four days. Stuff gets missed. Sometimes, prototypes sit largely undetected by the press. Sometimes it's reported in one language, translated, and loses its true meaning.
It looks like that is what happened with the Nuu Mini Key – an iPhone 4 protective case with a slide out keyboard with real tactile keys – that was on show at IFA. I saw the Nuu Mini Key en route to a press conference, and made a mental note to go back before the end of the show. Two days later I went back to look at the Nuu Mini Key with Gizmag's editor Noel McKeegan and Noel wasn't nearly as impressed. “It gives you back screen real estate but the screen keyboard works fine, why do I need this?, was his 10 second summation.
I didn't have an answer at the time, but upon thinking about it ...
Smartphones can now do almost everything I need except for processing photos and videos and I can't write articles on it YET.
Though there's a perfectly acceptable text editor inside the phone and two touches away from turning it on, in the form of Notes, I struggle committing every letter of a word with a touch screen keyboard yet I can input far quicker with a small qwerty keyboard with good tactile feedback.
So the input options currently available for the iPhone prevent it from being all it could be.
I am never without my iPhone and I never feel like I can input information into it at the rate I would like.
My big wide fingers don't work as well with a touch screen as do Noel's.
I've tried hooking up my Apple Bluetooth keyboard to the iPhone and it really transforms the usefulness. It means that with the addition of a full size keyboard, I can use the iPhone as an ultra portable word processor and make use of a lot of dead time and wasted opportunities to think and put together longer articles or simply input notes or ideas quickly.
So the ability to not just type quickly into an iPhone, but the ease with which it could be enabled from pocket to input and back is very short.
I'm far faster with a real qwerty keyboard in front of me for writing emails and texts, but the biggest difference is not the short-attention span stuff – it's the longer articles. By claiming back all the screen real estate you lose with the screen keyboard,you can see whole paragraphs and even multiple paragraphs, so full articles are easier to write.
Sadly, the smallest Apple Bluetooth keyboard is still too big to carry around conveniently. There's no carry case available for it, and it needs protection, and to transport it properly, you need to remove the batteries, so it isn't the answer.
I've scoured electronics areas and shows in four countries in the last three months in search of the right fold-up Bluetooth keyboard and I'm amazed there is no front-runner for my money as yet.
In the Chinese section at IFA I came across a roll up keyboard for the iPhone but it too was not yet shipping and try as I might, I could not liberate one of their working samples. So everyone is promising a small good fold-up Bluetooth keyboard soon, but I haven't found one yet that I can use to conduct my field trials.
The Nuu offers a potential solution. It has a slide-out ultra-portable qwerty keyboard with additional feedback from backlit push keys. The keys were hard to push and weren't backlit, so I asked if I could turn it on and I was told it was a non-working prototype. We discussed the likely final product and the stand rep said he felt confident that the tactile nature of the keys would be more than acceptable on the final product. It was as he said, “a non-working prototype but everything would be functional when it ships, and we have experience in these matters.”
The word appears to have circulated through the blog network that the Nuu's keys were hard to press – so the first thing to point out is that isn't quite correct – it was not a working prototype.
The reasons it is getting press coverage is entirely valid though – it potentially offers much greater input speeds. So it will be worth an immediate look as soon as a fully-functioning version is available to try. There's a minimal cost in terms of bulk and it weighs so little, and at around EUR50, the only question will be how much additional typing speed the Nuu's tiny qwerty keyboard will enable for each individual.
The iPad is getting lots of attention from manufacturers with protective casings, docks, stands and keyboards but I feel certain there's a huge opportunity for some manufacturer to deliver a clever, light, small, durable fold-up keyboard.
Such a keyboard will significantly enhance the usablity of the smartphone genre – mobile telecommunications and computing offer myriad ways of doing things better. I hate the qwerty keyboard as much as the next guy, but it's by far the fastest way I can brain dump into a computer. And I already have a computer in my pocket … now I just want faster input to it.
If anyone has any suggestions on new Bluetooth or iPhone docking keyboards, please let us know. Given an opportunity to seriously upgrade the bandwidth between my brain and my iPhone with the addition of the right keyboard solution, I am certain I will be able to write almost anywhere. Whether I will be able to get the keyboard entry speeds as high as I want with the Nuu Mini is another question.
Noel's final comment. “If you need a tactile qwerty keyboard of that size, buy a Blackberry”