Handhelds and smartphones are becoming ever more capable, these days typically including PIM (Personal Information Manager) applications, Web browsers and email clients, along with the capability to read (and sometimes edit) attachments in common business-productivity formats (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF). Companies can also deliver email and other business applications in real time, via back-end technology from the likes of RIM, IntelliSync, Visto, Good Technology and Microsoft.
All of which increasingly highlights the main problem with many of these devices: data entry. If you want to do anything more than navigate the user interface and create the odd text message or short email, then you'll generally need a better keyboard or keypad than the average handheld or smartphone provides. A number of wireless folding keyboards are available, from ThinkOutside, Freedom and others, but one of the most intriguing we've seen is the Wireless Fabric Keyboard from Eleksen, a British company operating out of Pinewood Studios.
Launched today, the £40 Wireless Fabric Keyboard is based on Eleksen's core ElekTex fabric, which consists of two outer layers of conductive textiles separated by a partially conductive inner layer. When pressure is applied to the material, the inner layer conducts, connecting the outer layers. Resistance decreases with increasing pressure, and by applying potentials to, and detecting voltages at, the edges of the outer layers, the location and force of a point of pressure can be determined. As well as roll-up keyboards, the technology has been used in clothing, luggage, furniture and cars. ElekTex fabric can be washed in the normal way (although it doesn't work when wet), and can be branded with corporate colours and logos.
The Wireless Fabric Keyboard provides a 63-key QWERTY layout and has a footprint of 306mm by 114mm when opened out: the (dual AAA) battery-driven electronics are housed in a plastic case to the left, around which the fabric is rolled up to form a compact bundle measuring 48mm by 126mm by 32mm and weighing 68g. You get a small drawstring bag to stow this and the simple but effective plastic stand for your mobile device. The only control is a power on/off button; a green LED flashes when you have a Bluetooth connection. Eleksen quotes a battery life of 10 hours.
Once you've installed the driver (Eleksen supports a number of Symbian, BlackBerry, Palm and Windows Mobile devices) and made a Bluetooth connection, you're ready to type. We found that the keyboard generally worked well, with one or two caveats. First, you have to press quite hard on the slightly raised 'keys' to get a result, which is signalled by an audible click from the mobile device (which in turn could become annoying for mobile workers and their fellow train/plane/automobile travellers). Another slight problem is the fact that although the electronics housing has small rubber feet, the fabric keyboard itself does not, and we found that the keyboard slid around a bit on a shiny desk surface.
Corporate IT departments should keep a close eye on portable keyboard developments, as handheld/smartphone devices and supporting back-end technology are reaching the point where some mobile workers will no longer need to carry expensive notebook computers if they have a usable input device. Although it's not perfect, Eleksen's innovative Wireless Fabric Keyboard may well fit the bill for many users.