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Opinion: Apple may or may not buy Sonder, but dynamic hardware keyboards are the future
Following speculation that Apple may be looking to acquire Sonder Keyboard, the startup yesterday confirmed to us that it has been in discussions with Apple's procurement board. Coincidentally or not, the company's website was not accessible at the time of writing (that may simply be yesterday's story driving too much traffic to it, of course).Sonder was not the first company to make a keyboard with dynamically-assigned keys. Patents for the idea go back as far as the 1970s, and the first commercially-available one was the German-made LC Board in the 1980s.The Optimus Maximus was one of the better-known examples of the technology, later superseded by the Optimus Popularis, in which each key is an individual color LCD display. At $1500, it hasn't exactly made it into the mainstream, and other examples have come and goneBut Sonder's approach has a realistic shot at making dynamic hardware keyboards a mainstream technology …Sonder's use of e-ink keys has two great advantages over LCD or OLED ones. First, it's much more affordable: the keyboard is currently on pre-order at $199, which is just twice the price of Apple's Magic Keyboard. The cost to Apple of manufacturing something similar ought to add a relatively modest amount to the cost of a MacBook.Second, while color LCD displays are power-hungry, e-ink displays barely sip from a battery. They require no power to display their content, only to change what is displayed. That's how a Kindle manages to run for a month or more on a single charge.So the technology would be practical for Apple to adopt, and there is plenty of evidence that the company is interested in dynamic keys. It now appears certain that this year's MacBook Pro models will have a dynamically-assigned OLED touchscreen panel in place of physical function keys, but the company's enthusiasm for this approach of course dates back way further than this.Apple's most successful product was built on its early adoption of dynamic keyboards. It was the headline feature of the iPhone, which differed from existing smartphones of the time by dispensing with physical keys.
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