Blog Post

iType: The Craziest iPhone Accessory Yet?

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

Among all the introductions at CES 2010 this year, one caught my eye as either iNsane or iNgenious, depending on your viewpoint. ION introduced a full external keyboard and docking station for the iPhone and iPod Touch. One step forward or back? Maybe both.

ION is the company that creates devices to bridge the divide between the analog and digital. It makes turntables that convert your LPs to MP3 and VCRs that convert your VHS tapes to Quicktime. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the company created a new device, called the iType, to allow traditional typing via a full keyboard on the iPhone. Not quite ready for the iPhone soft keyboard? There’s an app for that.

The device is not currently available, but it will be about 12 inches by 9 inches and about 1 inch thick, weighing in just under 2 pounds. By comparison, the typical netbook is about 10 by 7 inches and weighs a bit over 2 pounds. The iType’s specs are within the parameters of similar portable devices, and it will retail for $70.

Due to Apple’s (s aapl) restrictions, you will not be able to type into any application. The iType will achieve its keyboard wizardry via an iPhone app that you will open when you want to type. You can then copy text out of it to paste into other iPhone apps. The iType app will also allow direct email, and ION hopes to provide support to give other app developers the ability to use the iType. This is definitely a kludge compared with native keyboard support in all apps.

The iPhone already has a soft keyboard and carrying a keyboard with the iPhone does, on the surface (pardon the pun), defeat the portability of the iPhone. Are people really going to keep an iPhone and an iType in their pocket? Maybe not their pocket.

Anyone who has tried to use an iPhone as a laptop alternative experiences the frustration of trying to type a long email via the tiny virtual keyboard on screen. While virtual keyboards encourage succinct replies, real typing needs to be done on a real keyboard. Perhaps the forthcoming Apple tablet will have a virtual keyboard that supports traditional typing and could be a real laptop alternative, but until such time, the iType could give you the functionality of the tablet and portability of a netbook for less than $100.

In particular, the iType can help people with disabilities use the iPhone more effectively. Having worked with clients who have physical limitations, they seem to have no trouble with swiping, pinching and spreading, but the virtual iPhone keyboard requires precision coordination that some people simply don’t have. Devices like the Pogo Stylus help in some situations, but the iType might be a welcome way to make the iPhone accessible to more people.

Completely unnecessary or invaluable? Maybe a little bit of both!

26 Responses to “iType: The Craziest iPhone Accessory Yet?”

  1. PureEnergy

    STOP this nonsense. As a crackberry user, I too lament the lack of a physical keyboard, but I just had a revelation that will make some iphone accessory company rich:

    3rd party flip keyboard that doubles as a screen protector and far enough away from the screen not to leave marks – base model: physical connection to the bottom jack; deluxe model: bluetooth capable instead. Done and DONE.

  2. Like other writers, I have been wishing for an iPhone keyboard. Does anyone remember that foldable Palm keyboard years back? Perfect design. If THAT device could just be plugged into my iPhone and if we could nix that “copy and paste” app garbage, we’d be in business. I just want to open up my keyboard (4″ x 6″) plug my iPhone into it so it rests where i can see it and type like I’m on a Netbook. Why is that so hard? Palm could do it. Why can’t Apple? There’s no shortage of demand for such a product!

  3. Mordenheimer McGillicuddy

    I am continually astounded by the arrogance of people who say that an external keyboard for the iPhone is pointless. People use their iPhones in different capacities and so folks are going to vary in opinion over what features and capabilities are or are not important. There is obviously a market for smartphone-compatible keyboards, so regardless of whether or not YOU could make use of such a device for the iPhone it is clear that there are plenty who can. Who are you to decide the needs of others? This is not about a technological challenge that would add to the cost of the iPhone. We are just asking to be allowed to make use of the technology that already exists. If you can’t see the point in an iPhone keyboard then just be glad that you don’t have that need. I don’t see the point of about 90% of app store apps but I’m not about to tell all the people who love those pointless apps that Apple needs to be MORE selective with their app approval process. This is about choice. I fail to see how allowing an external keyboard option for the iPhone is anything but a win for the consumer.

  4. Oh gosh! I have been waiting for years for an external keyboard (I am a travel writer). But why not a foldable full size keyboard instead of this suitcase? If I pack this I might as well pack the computer. Ridiculous!

    • Actually, if you’re going to be a killjoy and get “technical” instead of smile, this piece of hardware actually has to be used with the app made for it to be able to copy/paste the text to other apps. So…there is an app for that in this case.

      BURNED! ;)

  5. This is a step backward. Like the previous pda’s you can attach a big, clunky external keyboard which removes the p in pda (I remember my Dad hauling around a semi-portable keyboard to use with his Handspring Visor). The point of having a powerful smartphone like the iphone is that it’s portable. This keyboard will be barely more portable than your average lightweight laptop, with much less capability. And having to copy and paste text into every application? Come on now, this thing is just silly.

  6. “Hey look, you can tack your iPhone to a brick!”

    They basically created a netbook with a super smedium screen. I would be more happy/impressed with something that folds and is more akin to the feel and flexibility of keyboard covers. I use a Final Cut Pro keyboard cover and though it’s flimsy, I can imagine a reinforced version that can be taken seriously. As noted previously, something like this would complement the phone’s portability. Let the phone actually be a phone.

  7. Matt in Columbus

    I love the idea of a portable keyboard, and am willing to pay for one. BUT, I think I will wait for one that is a more portable option (foldable, stowable, whatever they call it). I like the fact that this keyboard is not a bluetooth connection (at least that is what I am assuming) because I would like to be able to use it on a plane.

    The iPhone has some incredible capabilities, and I would use it very often instead of my laptop if there were a good portable keyboard set up. I’m impressed with the idea of going to an app to take the text input, and then pushing to other apps as needed… way to get around Apple’s stubborness.

    • I agree with you Matt: a portable keyboard would be ideal. The traditional keyboard is a good place to start I think. Prove people are willing to buy an external keyboard and then create different styles.

      Of course, if Apple sees it take up, they’ll probably just open up the bluetooth connection to allow the Apple keyboard to work with it.

  8. This is going off on a slight tangent here, but has anyone else been worried about the upcoming tablet’s primary power source? Maybe I’m being stupid but won’t it be a problem if you have to recharge via USB, draining valuable laptop battery? Will it have it’s own wall-plug?

    The one complaint I have over Apple’s iPod range is that the batteries just don’t last more than a few years. I can cope with buying an iPod every other year, but a tablet? Bit pricy.

  9. I’ve been wanting an external keyboard before the iPhone before I even bought an iPhone myself. With it I’ve worked out I could complete all my work (I run a small online business) without ever using a computer (except for bigger changes, but that’d only be a couple of times per year)…but I always needed a full sized keyboard because most of my work is writing.

    …but this is just a badly designed product unfortunately. You mentioned this in the article, but you can get a netbook that is smaller than this device, cheaper than the combination of keyboard + iPhone (meaning I’d be more comfortable traveling with a netbook) and some of them have very good keyboards (like the HP Mini 1000 which you can pick up on eBay for like $300).

    Oh well. I’m glad to see progress in this area at least.

  10. Even better- they could build a CPU inside the keyboard! It’d be Apple II for the next decade!

    While I am joking, it would be an interesting idea to have an iPhone that would gain more power and processing when docked into such a receiver. Hmm…

  11. Step forward and back. I think this is wear computers are heading in general. A keyboard AND Screen would make it interesting. Instead of carrying around a laptop, you just carry a phone, which you can plug into a terminal anywear, either at work, home, library, even on public transport, and it is always the same computer/phone.

  12. It would be awesome if the iType had TV-out. The iPhone does already, even if the cable, I think, must be bought separately. If iType did have this feature, you could use the iPhone as a touchpad with a monitor, the iType itself as a keyboard, and your TV or computer display as the screen.

  13. In my ideal world, my iPhone would replace my laptop and cover all the computing power & personal storage I need to carry with me. Maybe this product represents a small step in that direction. If my home and office had a docking keyboard and monitor, I wouldn’t need to carry a laptop or netbook. Carrying the keyboard might be optional based on need.

  14. In my early days of blogging, I didn’t own a laptop. I used a Palm T/X with a bluetooth keyboard to report on several trade shows. I can see where an external keyboard like this with my iPhone might allow me to leave my MacBook home from certain events and still be able to type longer pieces. Not elegant but workable possibly.

  15. Here’s the thing- while you may be able to type in only one application, that could be changed. Were Ion to give other developers their library for interfacing with the keyboard, it would get a lot more interesting…