Rumors have been swirling that Apple is about to acquire yet another tech startup, the Australian company Sonder Design, arousing intense interest and speculations that dynamic e-ink keyboards, able to shift between different interfaces depending on the application, will be incorporated into the next generation of Macs.
Much like the way you can switch between languages on a keyboard on your mobile screen, the E-ink display, the same kind used for Kindle, will allow the keyboard to shift between not only languages, but photoshop shortcuts, emoticons, game controls, and anything else developers see worthy to create.
Fransisco Serra-Martins, founder of the company, is confident that unlike kindle which “blinks” between pages, a timing control device means there will be no or little time-lapse as you toggle between keyboard interfaces. “You could play a video on there,” he says.
Pretty neat, eh? The next question is line of course is, will they really be featured on the next generation Macs? Though a meeting between Tim Cook and Sonder reported by the Guardian, was denied by the company in a statement, its founder only pointed out that the context of the meeting was inaccurate, without disclaiming the actual talks, in an interview with Technode.
Naturally for a seed phase startup like Sounder, the prospect of being acquired by Apple is both thrilling and intimidating.
It almost seems as if the the keyboards were designed with a destination in mind, as a promotional clip for the product cites the late Steve Jobs vision from 2007: “They all have these keyboards and control buttons that are fixed and plastic…every application wants a slightly different user interface a slightly optimized set of buttons just for it.” Design-wise, the customizable keyboard’s polished and clean appearance would chime with Apple’s style, a cousin to Apple’s Magic Keyboard
Imaginably, becoming a subsidiary of Apple carries an aura that would pave a smooth path for personal business ventures to come, eradicate all money anxieties, and the possible satisfaction of seeing your idea delivered by one of the best loved PCs in the world.
But the clout of a hardware giant that allows for all of the above also means that small fry gobbled up are vastly over-shadowed, perhaps to the point of oblivion. “If you look at nuanced technology like the team behind Siri, the company still exists, but they don’t operate under their name,” was all Fransisco would tentatively say, tiptoeing around the topic of acquisition–Apple disapproves of startups blurting out the details of courtship.
By convention, Apple like to keep a low profile whenever it buys a startup–”Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans”– is the protocol answer from the Cupertino company. In 2015, Apple announced that they had bought 15 companies, but the names and identities of 6 were never made public－if Sonder’s deal carries through, we might never hear Apple holler about it until the new Mac with customizable keyboards is trotted out by Tim Cook.
On average, Apple buys 10-20 startups each year, and some are hard to miss, such as Beats Electronics headphones, its technology incorporated into iTunes and iPhones. Others are fused with existing products and a never heard of again in their maiden name–think Silicon Color, whose technology enhanced Final Cut Studio, the search engine OttoCat, which powers the iOS app store,VocallQ which allows Siri to better understand what you dictate, and thanks to Snappy Labs, acquired in 2014, your iPhones can take slo-mo clips.
But then there are the countless others whose technology Apple merely sits on, perhaps they just wanted the talent, or want it stashed away to get ahead in the unforeseeable future.
For Sonder, the priority is to bring the keyboard into existence, by any means necessary. “For us, it really depends on what Apple’s intentions are, if it aligns with our vision. If not, then we have other options we can pursue”, Fransisco said.
In an era where when the laptop design has reached a bottleneck, a smarter keyboard is an attractive marketing point and unmistakable opportunity for product differentiation–and in the meanwhile streamlining the supply chain. Right now, Apple has more than 32 different language keyboards in their supply chain, Fransisco tells us, and that means it has to forecast sales in different regions to cope with the demand.
Perhaps the actual value of an e-ink keyboard a bit overhyped. After all, those bilingual and polyglots have probably mastered typing methods without a stack of different keyboards, while Dota gamers and CAD designers have the controls memorized by heart at this point. But as long as a laptop maker eager to woo the crowds and show that they can still innovate buys Sonder’s tale, then eventually so will the rest of us.