Bainbridge man working on analog keyboard for the iPhone

  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Robert Solomon likes to say he was known in his youth as “Rocket Boy,” which was appropriate when as a teen he tinkered with rocket motors and eventually founded a company that built solid propellants for projects such as the Gemini Manned Spacecraft.

The sobriquet “Mr. Keyboard” may be more appropriate now since the Bainbridge Island resident eventually became involved in computer technology and is regarded as one of the industry’s premier keyboard designers. And he’s poised to make his mark again.

Solomon plans to roll out a prototype mini-keyboard early next year that can be used on the industry’s current hottest-selling product, smartphones, specifically the iPhone.

SoloMatrix Inc., his latest startup, is raising money in an effort to begin production in 2010 with smartphone accessories that he believes have an exciting future.

“Basically we have developed an analog switch for touch screens,” said Solomon, who in early 2000 created a thumb-operated keyboard for hand-held Palm Pilot PDA. It was Palm’s early answer to BlackBerry.

Industry experts estimate that 28 million iPhones have been sold so far and that number could triple by 2012. Plus, several cellphone heavyweights – T-Mobile, Nokia and Verizon – are currently flooding the market with their versions of the product.

Solomon’s keyboard inventions will begin with Text-It, a detachable, thumb-operated keyboard that slips over the touch screen, allowing the user to type text easier and faster, especially important when answering many emails, text messages, and accessing the thousands of applications available for the iPhone.

Next will come HangTen, a folding, portable keyboard with a docking station that will offer users a sit-down, full-size typing and word-processing experience.

Finally, PersonalPod will offer a more sophisticated keyboard and additional memory with the goal of allowing smartphones to compete in the market with netbooks and laptops.

“The idea is to create products for the smartphone that will enable them to become laptop replacement at a fraction of the cost,” Solomon said. “This type of device will appeal to a large percentage of today’s laptop users.”

The iPhone is the primary target since the product appears destined to outsell other smartphones because Apple has created coveted applications (some 85,000 apps) that can be used only on iPhones. Basically, Solomon said, Apple sells thousands of apps for a buck or two to entice users to buy the attractive, solid-aluminum iPhones for as much as $299.

Solomon also has considerable respect for Apple’s high-quality exteriors, especially the iPhone. With that in mind, he said, “our product (Text-It) will have to be sleek like the iPhone or users won’t buy it.”

Perhaps, but it’s Solomon’s ingenuity that will set his products apart from others.

“We have developed a technology that violates none of Apple’s rules but circumvents any potential roadblocks,” Solomon said. For one, the SoloMatrix detachable keyboard will not suck power from the iPhone’s marginal battery source.

Plus, Solomon doesn’t expect Apple to get involved with keyboards because the company has always been more about creating attractive, high-functioning computers than selling accessories. He also thinks the market is capacious because of estimates by the tech industry that about half of the iPhone users are dissatisfied with the device’s keyboard.

“Let’s say 15 to 20 percent of those people are open to a keyboard product and we can capture 5 or 10 percent of them,” said SoloMatrix co-founder Jay Strauss. “We are focusing on the ‘enterprise’ world because business people have a need for multiples uses.”

The company also wants to focus on “gamers” because a large majority of the iPhone’s apps are for them. “And gamers love speed, which we can give them. with with a iPhone game controller using our patented technology,” Strauss said.

At this time, Solomon is estimating that his keyboards will sell for between $29.95 and $49.95. A Seattle-based industrial design firm is currently working on the prototypes.

“Since the iPhone’s touch screen can be difficult to use, we’ve simply reversed the process,” Solomon said. “The world is going to touch screens, but there will always be a place for a switch, a button. There is still room for real, tactile keys. We hope to apply our product to all future touch screens.”

Don’t bet against him. Solomon has a long history of being able to take an idea and make a successful product out of it.

Solomon, who has provided numerous keyboard products for Mac users over the years, isn’t worried about Apple’s reaction to his product.

“If they support it that would be great,” he said. “I think it is something they will get behind because it enhances what they do. But they don’t have to.”

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