Throwback gadget: Think Outside Stowaway portable keyboard

It was 2000, the over-enthusiasm for internet-based businesses, alternative telecoms providers and Linux eco-system businesses was in full-swing and I was building my agency career helping further fuel the economic bubble.

Broadband wasn’t a word in common parlance, streaming video windows were about the size of a postage stamp; that didn’t stop sites like UK business technology site Silicon.com from trying to develop and promote video content for the web.

At this time wi-fi devices were online starting to be launched on to the market and was some way from adoption. Wireless meant using IrDA infra-red connections between devices (like a TV remote control having a long conversation) and wireless data meant the then new digital mobile phone networks with SMS and patchy voice services.

You could could get some Nokia and Ericsson phones to talk to other devices to connect to the internet but it wasn’t cheap. The only people I knew who used it were news photographers getting pictures over to picture desks at photo agencies and newspapers.

My biggest client at the time was Palm who were spun out of 3Com with Carl Yankowski at the head of the company and Bill Maggs as CTO.

I had gone out and bought a Palm Vx PDA three weeks before being put on the account (where I would have got one for free).  The Vx became my primary computing device, as I was away from home much of them working in the office, at client meetings or traveling. I started to write on it, but the stylus would only get you so far.

I had looked at devices like the AlphaSmart 3000, which was cheap, ran on three AA batteries for weeks at a time, and could transfer text via USB. It had proper keys with decent travel on them and was sturdily made, but it had a similar footprint to a modern-day 13-inch MacBook Pro.

I eventually ordered a Stowaway portable keyboard from Amazon in the US. The keyboard used the Palm Vx as its ‘computer’ and and PDA became a compact word processor that would fit into two jacket pockets and was more productive than even the current iPad.

I managed to draft emails to colleagues, positioning documents, media tour briefing documents and press releases on it. You could type away quite happily on the train or an airplane, which I frequently did when I went back home to see the parents.
Home Inspector's Palm Keyboard
How on earth did a they get a usable keyboard to fit in a jacket pocket?

This came down to a bit of product design genius by a Silicon Valley-based start-up called Think Outside Inc. who came up with a Jacob’s Ladder-type keyboard design which gave you 19mm keys and then folded into four sections – connected together with a flat ribbon cable. The pieces were locked together by sliding in two handles (the red bits in the picture above) to provide a stable flat keyboard. The design was so success that Palm sold their own-branded version to be sold to people like me and Targus-branded versions did a similar thing for Handspring, Compaq and HP PDAs.

A flip-up connector plugged into the serial port of the device and held the screen at an optimum position for viewing. Later versions of the keyboard used Bluetooth wireless connectivity, unfortunately the electronics were less tolerant of being folded up so the keyboards became less elegant. Eventually Think Outside was acquired by cellphone charger company Mobility Electronics (iGo) and eventually touch devices pretty much killed the mainstream demand for a portable keyboard all together.