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Keypad lets callers’ fingers do the talking

Flimsy yet durable keyboard is 7 times faster than thumbs

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LONDON — Text messaging on mobile phones is all thumbs. A British company believes the best way to get the other eight fingers involved is by going soft.

After sneak peeks at New York's Museum of Modern Art and the IT Expo in France, ElectroTextiles Co. Ltd. is marketing a flexible, plug-in keyboard this year for mobile phones and personal digital assistants.

Although similar devices are already on the market, this one uses the company's ElekTex fabric, a soft, water-resistant material that can receive and transmit electronic impulses without traditional wiring or circuitry.

The fabric turns keyboards into bumpy placemats that can be folded up and slipped into a pocket, or act as a wraparound cover for the device they're attached to.

The soft keyboard is the first in a line of products that will use ElekTex. Also on tap: squishy mobile phones that conform to a pocket and survive a drop onto the sidewalk, and a smart car seat that automatically adjusts to the proportions of its occupant.

Chris Chapman, co-founder of ElectroTextiles, isn't worried about debuting ElekTex in a niche already crowded with keyboard attachments made by Palm Inc., LM Ericsson and Motorola Inc.

He's confident his device will be embraced by mobile phone users tired of pecking away at a telephone pad. At one ounce, it's light — and it's flexible.

"You pull the cover off, drop it down and start typing," he said. "People's first impressions are, 'Whoa, it's fabric, it must be a little flimsy.' But it's very durable. . . . It take a good whack, it rolls up, it scrunches up."

But British "texters" — mostly teenagers and 20-somethings who can bang out 100-character messages in a flurry of thumbs — are less enthusiastic about such keyboards.

"Personally I don't have a problem using the standard phone keypad to type messages," said Daniel Thornton, a 20-year-old student from Peterborough, England, about 100 miles north of London.

"Right now I send upwards of 200 text messages a month, but I don't think it's worth the expense of buying a keyboard for the purpose of text messages. Having an extra piece of equipment would also reduce the portability aspect."

Chapman would give no details on price or compatibility with specific devices. The keyboards will be manufactured by an undisclosed partner.

For new or less-skilled text messengers, typing on phone keypads can be frustrating, even with the growing lexicon of shorthand text lingo.

To illustrate, one must press the "7" key four times to get the letter "s." Typing the word "difficult" requires 22 keystrokes, and symbols such as question marks and hyphens must be ferreted out of a separate menu.

By comparison, "difficult" requires nine keystrokes on a standard keyboard, and a question mark is a shift key away.

The ElekTex device is about the size of the top of a tissue box. It's slightly thicker than a mouse pad. Keys — they are more like bubbly buttons — are smaller than those on a typical keyboard.

Accomplished typists will find the keyboard a bit clumsy. Its creators say users can type about 75 percent as fast as they could on a desktop computer keyboard — but that's still seven times faster than a phone keypad. The company hopes to persuade wireless service providers to package the keyboards with phones given to new customers.

Although text messaging hasn't caught on in the United States, it's highly popular in Europe and Asia.

With Britain's mobile phone users already sending nearly 1 billion text messages a month, the company says faster data entry could boost revenues for wireless service providers, which generally charge by the message.

But some industry analysts question the revolutionary zeal espoused by ElekTex's creators. Newer phones come with "predictive" text messaging, where software tries to help automatically complete words. And the keyboard's product life could be brief if voice-recognition technology becomes widely available.

Alex Rogers, a telecommunications consultant at Unisys Corp., said that although standard keyboards are already available for personal digital assistants, "the majority of users are happy using the traditional stylus as a way of entering information."

ElekTex: www.elektex.com

Charmed: http://www.charmed.com