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Keyboard Design as Modern Art
January 13, 2011 1:32 PM   Subscribe

The Butterfly Keyboard (officially called a TrackWrite) on IBM's Thinkpad 701c was so unusual and innovative that it's housed at MoMA. So what killed the design? (via)

Also, a 2001 interview with the designer, John Karidis. And a Japanese page showing some of the innards and schematics.

Bonus videos: Ad for the 701c featuring Paul Reiser. Another ad. Longer promo.
posted by kmz (44 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
what killed the design?

The fact that my angry bear fingers would destroy it in weeks.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 1:36 PM on January 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


Hey, thanks for posting this. I had one of those thinkpads back in the day and just the other week I was looking everywhere for a modern netbook with the same keyboard design. I had no idea that it was a one-off.
posted by 256 at 1:38 PM on January 13, 2011


The fact that my angry bear fingers would destroy it in weeks.

When I worked IT we had a salesman who's typing habits were firmly set on mechanical typewriters. He'd come back from his three martini lunches and lean his heavy torso forward to bring his insensate fingers down like miniature hammers on his poor Gateway Laptop. I had to use the warranty every 2-3 months to get him a new one. I'm kind of surprised that they didn't offer to subsidize a toughbook or something.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:42 PM on January 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


what killed the design?

The fact that my angry bear fingers would destroy it in weeks.


It's cool, but I am having trouble looking at it without envisioning screwing it up by closing it too enthusiastically or getting stuff jammed in it or similar...

The more mechanical stuff is in something the more expensive it is to manufacture, i would also imagine.
posted by Artw at 1:43 PM on January 13, 2011


Still, it's suprising nobody else is trying anything else is trying anything like this in the modern landscape of netbooks, tablety things with keyboards and phones with teeny-tiny keyboards.
posted by Artw at 1:44 PM on January 13, 2011


This design has a substantial dollar value attached to it.
posted by mikelieman at 1:45 PM on January 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


kmz: "So what killed the design?

Ad for the 701c featuring Paul Reiser

What killed the design?

Ad for the 701c featuring Paul Reiser
Featuring Paul Reiser
Paul Reiser Paul Reiser Paul Reiser
"

I kid.

So IBM had tons of stuff like this and was happy to spread it around internally. I remember getting excited to see a two trackpoint keyboard in the wild, and then being totally befuddled by it when given the chance to use it.
posted by boo_radley at 1:45 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


The main gist is that the availability of larger screens meant there was more room to put a keyboard so the design wasn't needed.

But I do think it could be useful again with netbooks or ultraportables. I saw a few articles mentioning that IBM/Lenovo was thinking about using it again, but nothing's materialized yet.
posted by kmz at 1:46 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just so long as Lenovo doesn't kill the trackpoint. I don't know how I'd go on living.
posted by enn at 1:49 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just so long as Lenovo doesn't kill the trackpoint. I don't know how I'd go on living.

Yes, thanks to the trackpoint I don't need to put forth any effort at all to keep my mouse pointer safely tucked in a corner.
posted by odinsdream at 1:52 PM on January 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


Oh god, having two of them really isn't making the nipple-like nature of the trackpoint any better.
posted by Artw at 1:52 PM on January 13, 2011


When I worked IT we had a salesman who's typing habits were firmly set on mechanical typewriters. He'd come back from his three martini lunches and lean his heavy torso forward to bring his insensate fingers down like miniature hammers on his poor Gateway Laptop. I had to use the warranty every 2-3 months to get him a new one. I'm kind of surprised that they didn't offer to subsidize a toughbook or something.

Hahaha. I've only fooled around with a mechanical typewriter once or twice. The real culprit is typing while drunk.

The aluminum case on my 2006 macbook pro is literally bowed from hours of drunken abuse. I figured "No, biggie, this is what happens to computers," until last night, when I worked on a friends pristine 2006 macbook pro.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 1:53 PM on January 13, 2011


So IBM had tons of stuff like this and was happy to spread it around internally. I remember getting excited to see a two trackpoint keyboard in the wild, and then being totally befuddled by it when given the chance to use it.

Sorry to double post, but who wants to grope their computer just to use MS paint?
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 1:57 PM on January 13, 2011


My 2006 Macbook Pro looks like it survived an attack by Vogons—but only just barely. Still works OK other than sounding like a B29.
posted by Mister_A at 2:07 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh god, having two of them really isn't making the nipple-like nature of the trackpoint any better.

I'm not sure if this is better or worse than my idea for trackpads. Trackpads sense both pressure and position and I'd like to see a 'lick/rub her' type game.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 2:12 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


We dug one of these up in our supply room a few years ago, presumably because nobody had the heart to throw the thing out.

We were surprised by the quality of the keys (definitely "clickier" than most laptops), and the robustness of the "butterfly" mechanism (which was surprisingly elegant, and had fairly few moving parts). I couldn't imagine it breaking any more easily than the screen hinges.

Concerns about fragility seem to have been mostly imagined and projected onto the poor thing. Definitely a triumph of engineering (and ugly failure of marketing. See also: HP Capshare)

Of course, I'm sure it also added a fair bit of weight and thickness. I think that thickness is a bigger factor in notebook design than overall surface area. I don't think anybody's complained that the MacBook Air is too big.

The 8" subnotebook is a niche that simply doesn't make very much sense.
posted by schmod at 2:13 PM on January 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I remember when these first came out and thinking how utterly brilliant and ingenious it was. It was so clever that I've only felt that way about a keyboard one other time in recent memory (this thing, which is just fucking yes).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:01 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Check out this absurd thing from RAZER that's pretty much blowing my mind. (via the lovely Stavros)

It's like that Optimus keyboard but it exists.
posted by boo_radley at 3:05 PM on January 13, 2011


One of my proudest recent gadget moments: finding an unopened original Think Outside folding Bluetooth keyboard offered by some eBay seller in Germany who was unaware there'd been a huge spike in the selling price for these in the U.S. after the iPad launched. Think Outside was a little start-up company founded by ex-Apple hardware guys, and the intricate little folding keyboards they turned out are works of art. They're conceptually similar to the Thinkpad butterfly keyboard, though designed for ultra-portability, and are quite beautiful to behold in action.
posted by killdevil at 3:20 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's cool, but I am having trouble looking at it without envisioning screwing it up by closing it too enthusiastically or getting stuff jammed in it or similar...

It was actually surprisingly robust.
One of the demos had someone picking up the laptop using the "wings" and giving it a good shake. Folded right up with no problems afterwards.
posted by madajb at 3:54 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hah, I have one in operable condition! Battery's shot, as you might expect. Weighs a ton. Art, when we finally actually have that pint I'll dig it out.
posted by mwhybark at 4:03 PM on January 13, 2011


Over in the UK we had the Psion 5, a pocket organiser with a QWERTY keyboard that used a patented mechanism to slide out from its case to reveal a size and typing angle that belied the device's small form-factor. I wrote two 100,000-word novels on mine. Never found anything similar, would buy one like a shot if I did.
posted by Hogshead at 4:23 PM on January 13, 2011


Years ago I actually audited the company who made the keys for this keyboard. The company was surprised that it didn't become a standard.

Also, If I remember correctly the keys had a special coating that made them feel different (maybe smoother) that a lot of customers found unusual.

I miss my old Compaq laptop that had a trackball that attached to the side of the keyboard. I still can't use a touchpad.
posted by JohntheContrarian at 4:32 PM on January 13, 2011


Love those babies. I'm still grousing about the switch from 4:3 to 16:9 laptop screens. I really don't need the extra horizontal space, but a bit of vertical never goes amiss. You forget after a while, until you're on a 4:3 screen and suddenly it all feels right again.
posted by bonaldi at 4:48 PM on January 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I'm still on the search for a Psion 5 replacement. Netbooks are in the vicinity, but not quite there. And more and more netbook manufacturers are moving away from what made them Psion 5 like anyway.
posted by Artw at 5:04 PM on January 13, 2011


The aluminum case on my 2006 macbook pro is literally bowed from hours of drunken abuse. I figured "No, biggie, this is what happens to computers,"

Dude, your computer is not Stella Kowalski. Be kind!
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 5:30 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


For micro-PCs/Psion-5-replacement, there's the Sony Vaio UX series, and someone's modded one to run a Core2Duo CPU.

That butterfly keyboard is freaking fly, but the author of the last link has a good point; small footprint is great, but height is a problem. I used to use a Thinkpad x61s as my primary work machine; typing on it is fantastic... but merely "ok" when docked into an Ultrabase which adds 1, 1.5cm to the height. The new base (Ultradock III?) for the T410s is a much better design where the front tapers down at the front such that the front edge is essentially the same height as an undocked T410s (although the X2-- base still suffers the same problems as the old x6- bases).

Also, the 701c looks awful; 701c::chunky-mule-heels/Nissan Cube as to modern-ultra-slims::stilettos/Ferrari 456. Not that the 456 looks any good.
posted by porpoise at 8:43 PM on January 13, 2011


I'm still grousing about the switch from 4:3 to 16:9 laptop screens.

For whatever it's worth, virtually no laptops have an actual 16:9 screen ratio. They may be "widescreen," but the ratio is still usually somewhere between 16:9 and 4:3.

4:3 = 1.3333
1680:1050 = 1440:900 = 1.6 (Most "widescreen" computer displays)
1920:1080 = 16:9 = 1.7778 (True 16:9)

Some cinematic prints have even a wider aspect ratio....
posted by schmod at 8:51 PM on January 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


The HTC 7 Pro looks potentially Psion 5 like in form.
posted by Artw at 9:07 PM on January 13, 2011


It's like that Optimus keyboard but it exists.

...as a 3d-rendered concept demo. Also that is about the cheesiest tech presentation I've ever seen — I thought it was a parody until the jokes failed to appear.


Over in the UK we had the Psion 5, a pocket organiser with a QWERTY keyboard that used a patented mechanism to slide out from its case to reveal a size and typing angle that belied the device's small form-factor.

I just watched a youtube video of this thing (which does look neat) but unless I'm missing something, you flip it open and there's a keyboard inside.
posted by brightghost at 4:19 AM on January 14, 2011


It's like that Optimus keyboard but it exists.

What are you talking about? I used to have one. It was a terrible keyboard.

I bought it from ThinkGeek.

Here.
posted by synthetik at 6:54 AM on January 14, 2011


Brightghost, this video gives a very good view of the Psion 5/5mx keyboard sliding out as the device opens (from 2:30 onwards) as well as close-ups showing the quality of the keys themselves.

(Actually the video shows a Ericsson MC218, which was the same machine rebadged.)
posted by Hogshead at 8:31 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I actually still use mine sometimes. I have a pcmcia wireless card for it and everything. It's running freebsd 4.11, and is fairly responsive to use (except firefox takes a long time to start.) The battery still lasts a while.
posted by fritley at 8:44 AM on January 14, 2011


freebsd on a psion 5? cor. must not ebay, must not ebay.
posted by bonaldi at 8:48 AM on January 14, 2011


No no - on the thinkpad 701c.
posted by fritley at 8:48 AM on January 14, 2011


I loved the ThinkPad I used to have. The TrackPoint still strikes me as a brilliant portable pointing device. That I don't manage to accidentally drag my thumb across like my touchpads.
posted by Samizdata at 9:35 AM on January 14, 2011


More folding computing:
The unreleased UMPC with a folding keyboard, Samsung SPH-P9200.

Nokia's folding E70 cellphone.

The Kohjinsha dual screen netbook.

Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds dual screen notebook.

Hogshead and Artw, you can try looking at this list of UMPCs sorted by screen size to find something similar to a Psion 5, although nothing will get close to that battery life. I don't know how big your hands are, but the Viliv N5 might work, and will last 5-6 hours a charge. Also, Sharp IS01 has a 5-inch screen and runs android and Sharp Netwalker PC-Z1 runs Ubuntu. The Fujitsu UH900 is small and powerful, but has terrible battery life.

However all of these run resource-heavy OS's, use LCD screens with backlighting, 1Gz+ processors and you certainly can't pop in a pair of AA batteries when needed. For just text input, you could try looking into digital Korean dictionaries, which run lighter OS's although I don't know much about them.
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 9:49 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


In some ways we've gone to the opposite extreme. The 17" MacBook Pro, for example, looks ridiculous with its tiny laptop keyboard inside that enormous case. I can't understand why Apple didn't put a full-sized keyboard into a machine that was obviously designed as a desktop replacement rather than for portability. There's plenty of room in the thing to fit one.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:05 PM on January 14, 2011


It is a full-sized keyboard -- same size as the standard Apple keyboard is. They didn't put a numberpad on it because that's a terrible idea on a laptop -- it forces the bit you use all the time off to the left so your hands are either always at an angle, or coming in to the laptop from the side.

Apple won't have users sitting asymmetrically, no way. if they could stop you slouching, they would.
posted by bonaldi at 1:19 PM on January 14, 2011


They could stick all the Insert/Delete/PageUp/PageDown/Cursor crap to the left and leave the numpad on the right to center the alpha keys.

I still miss my Nokia 6800 desperately. It was the smartest non-smartphone I ever had, easy typing, decent calendar, just bulletproof. I'll still take a keyboard over a touchscreen any day.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:06 PM on January 14, 2011


Various Asus tablety things with keyboards.

There;s also a quite nice array of iPad cases with built in keyboards these days.
posted by Artw at 3:18 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I still miss my Nokia 6800 desperately. It was the smartest non-smartphone I ever had, easy typing, decent calendar, just bulletproof. I'll still take a keyboard over a touchscreen any day.

I used to be like you. I had the original samsung blackjack. I kept that gorgeous thing running for 3-4 years. I LOVED the keyboard, I couldn't imagine every typing on anything else.

I have an iphone now. It took me about 3 weeks to get the hang of it. I type much faster with it. I only have 2 gripes though. First, it's impossible to type while drunk. Second, autocorrect is annoying as hell.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:18 PM on January 14, 2011


It's also impossible to touch on my Android touch screen when I'm not looking at it. That's one huge advantage of a physical keyboard.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:08 PM on January 14, 2011


Touch Type. My brain is fritzed today.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:53 PM on January 14, 2011


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