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.)