I was working on a secret project in 2008 when it was suddenly and unceremoniously canceled, and I was suddenly looking for a new position at Apple. An opportunity surfaced that seemed to combine my interests in design & technology perfectly: a position on a software prototyping team in the multitouch hardware group.
I had heard of one of the guys on the team through his Magic Ink paper, and needless to say, I was a bit nervous about pitching the concept I had developed for a “design challenge” assignment – a tagging system for Mac OS X that I dubbed Synapse – to someone of Bret Victor’s renown. His insightful demeanour put me at ease, and I managed to land the job.
A few days later, I had the surreal experience of walking into a small room in a secure area of Apple’s hardware labs and seeing a prototype iPad laying on the table. My job for the next couple years was building software prototypes for whatever novel hardware concepts were conjured up.
One of the problems that immediately attracted me was how to type quickly on a large multitouch device like the iPad. The plan for text input on iPad seemed highly inefficient, but the idea of a split keyboard had been “laughed out of the room” a few years earlier. Still, I felt it was the best way to type on a tablet form factor device. I imagined doctors holding the iPad in a patient’s room, a wine grower walking through his cellars with the device, or simply needing to type on the iPad while standing up or laying down – the standard keyboard didn’t support these use cases very well.
iPad split keyboard
The challenges of bringing the concept out of the lab an into production were many: aside from the technical hurdles of supporting the 40-odd languages (including Japanese Kana, Emoji, and other layouts that don’t immediately lend themselves to splitting) there were numerous political obstacles to surmount.
The Split Keyboard took almost two and a half years of design, development, cross-functional integration, performance optimization and persistence to get the keyboard integrated into iOS.
Apple submitted a family of patents for some of the iPad Split Keyboard’s technologies, including the “phantom keys” feature that I invented — the intentionally duplicated keys along the inner edges of the left and right key areas to support the natural crossover that occurs with bi-manual typing.