Apple, Bring Back the Butterfly Keyboard for Netbooks

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There goes Apple, trash-talking netbooks again. Tim Cook, the company’s chief operating officer, had harsh words yesterday for the current crop of inexpensive mini-notebooks, calling them “junky” with cramped keyboards and bad software. “It’s a stretch to call them a personal computer,” he said.


While I wouldn’t call all netbooks junk, Cook’s criticisms are valid. My biggest gripe with every mini-note I’ve tried is the tiny keyboard. It’s an ergonomic disaster. My hands aren’t huge, but I can’t type on these things for longer than an hour. So if Apple does enter the netbook category — and I believe it will, sooner rather than later — it should address the keyboard issue first.

Here’s my suggestion: Apple should bring back the “butterfly keyboard” — or a variation of it — used by IBM for a brief period back in the 1990s. For those of you too young to remember, or those who were distracted by watching their stock portfolios rise and fall back then, the butterfly device was a fold-out keyboard featured on the IBM ThinkPad 701 series. It consisted of two halves; when opened it extended over the sides of the laptop, thereby creating a more spacious keyboard than those found in competing notebooks at the time.

Called TrackWrite, the clever design generated a lot of media buzz when it first appeared in 1995. The fold-out keyboard didn’t last long, however, in part because the move toward larger displays made it irrelevant. (The ThinkPad 701 had a 10.4-inch display, similar to today’s netbooks.) I always liked the concept, though, and had hoped that IBM or another vendor would bring it back someday.

Now the time has come. The emergence of the netbook has brought back many of the ergonomic woes of early portables, including cramped keyboards and small screens. Would Apple ever license TrackWrite from IBM? I doubt it. The company’s pride and not-invented-here attitude would never let that happen. But you never know.

Some users may see the touch screen as a better alternative to a fold-out keyboard. I don’t think so. A touch screen is nice for some things, and it’s a good fit with handheld gadgets like the iPhone. But for touch typists who write long documents for extended periods of time, a touch screen could never replace the keyboard. It’s too slow and clunky.

Voice input? Sure, someday. But not yet. For now, we’re stuck with the keyboard. So why not a fold-out keyboard for netbooks?

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