Unlocking the Key(board) to the Pre | webOS Nation
 
 

Unlocking the Key(board) to the Pre

by Jonathan I Ezor#IM Mon, 31 Aug 2009 10:37 am EDT

Bluetooth Keyboard Support for the Palm Pre: will we get it?

I love my Palm Pre. I was chosen to be a Palm Real Reviewer, with a Pre on loan from Palm. I carry my Pre everywhere, show it to everyone, use it for everything from a flashlight to an alarm clock to a vacation camera to a backup GPS. I've even become a part of the PreCentral team. So why am I sitting at my kitchen table typing this on my trusty Palm T|X? Because I can, and I can't on my Pre, and therein lies a tragic tale.

[Ed Note: Say hello to Jonathan Ezor (you know him as ProfJonathan), our newest writer! - Dieter]

Most of you may not realize it, but there have been full-sized, external keyboards available for Palm handhelds since late 1997. That was when LandWare released PiloKey, a driver and cable adapter combo that allowed PalmPilot users to connect and type on an Apple Newton external keyboard. (Yes, back then, Apple was willing to let you type on physical keys when using its PDA.) While the software for actually writing on the PalmPilot was limited (memos still had a 4k size limit, there were some limited text file editing programs, and MS Office compatibility was still years away), and typing was awkward (the cable connected to the bottom serial port of the PalmPilot or Palm III, making it all but impossible to prop up), it still worked. Those of us who had mastered Graffiti but were still faster touchtypists were able to use our Palm PDAs for real writing. (I drafted much of my book CLICKING THROUGH and many other articles on that Newton keyboard.)

With both the concept and market proven, dedicated keyboards designed for Palm devices followed shortly. The GoType keyboard, also from Landware, had a flip cover that doubled as a stand for the Palm handheld as it sat on its hardwired connector. It didn't even use batteries (drawing necessary power from the Palm device itself), and had no cables to snag or lose. The GoType's one flaw was its size, especially when compared to the compactness of the Palm devices themselves. What was needed was a keyboard that, somehow, could fold as small as the device it connected to, for easy transportation. Enter ThinkOutside (now part of iGo).

The ThinkOutside Stowaway (also branded as the Palm Portable Keyboard), released 10 years ago, was an engineering marvel: while it had near full-sized keys, it folded into a compact shape whose footprint was barely larger than the Palm device to which it connected. When unfolded and locked in place, the Stowaway provided a pop-up stand to connect and elevate the Palm handheld. I first saw a pre-release Stowaway at a tradeshow in New York, and was instantly smitten; I ordered one the day they became available. Subsequent evolutions of the Stowaway continued to push the edge of functionality, with the Ultra-Thin Keyboard adding stability while shedding bulk, and a Bluetooth version released after Palm eliminated its "Universal Connector" for hardwired keyboards and peripherals. (I'm using the Bluetooth Ultra-Thin Keyboard to write this.) Palm released a number of keyboards under its brand (both Bluetooth and infrared), and manufacturers like Logitech offered their own options. Even for those Palm devices with built-in thumbboards (the Tungsten C and the various Treo models), the external keyboard permitted faster, easier typing and editing, key when working with MS Office documents using BlueNomad's Wordsmith or DataViz' Documents To Go.

When the Pre was announced in January 2009, even though it lacked the infrared port used for Palm's own most recent portable keyboard, it seemed certain that Palm would offer a Bluetooth keyboard option for the Pre. In fact, Palm's 3/11/09 blog about its "Frequently Tweeted Questions" included as one of its acronyms "EWTBKA," which meant, "Enough with the Bluetooth keyboards already! We get the point." Unfortunately, Palm apparently didn't get the point, as the Pre launched without a Bluetooth keyboard profile in early June and, at this writing, there's been no sign of any work by Palm on adding one. The only possible ray of hope is the effort by folks at WebOSInternals to adapt the open source Bluez Linux Bluetooth stack (which includes keyboard profiles) for the Pre, but it isn't clear whether or when this can be done.

Which leaves me having to charge up my T|X when I want to touchtype at my table, or take discrete notes at a meeting, or write on an airplane tray table. To me, having used every external keyboard solution available for Palm handhelds, it is unbelievable to me that Palm has missed the opportunity to add this basic feature to the Pre (one which, it's instructive to point out, Apple has refused to add to the iPhone and iPod Touch). I remain hopeful that Palm or a clever developer will eventually bring to the Pre the same ability to touchtype that I had with my Palm III in 1997. Until then, though, I guess I'll keep my T|X charged.