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Lapping up the key changes

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Osteopaths will not be pleased, but the days of carrying heavy laptops around may be numbered

Years ago Olivetti brought out a compact laptop.

Designed for travelling, it had a built-in voice recorder as well as the obligatory screen and built-in keyboard.

It bombed. The voice recorder was not integrated electronically with the computer. And the keyboard was so small only beings with very thin, pointed fingers could use it.

Then laptops got into full swing, with their usable keyboards, full-size screens and weighing a lot less than sewing-machine-sized pioneering models, such as the Osborne.

Now, some years later, the most advanced laptops are quite small, lighter, ergonomically sound, extremely powerful - and still function independently of wall sockets for a less-than-thrilling couple of hours. Oh, and with the exception of, say, the Vaio, lighter really means still mildly shoulder-wrenching.

The thing about all laptops is that they are astronomically overpowered. Actually there have always been appropriate-technology computers that combine slim size and long battery life with full-size keyboards. The Amstrad Notepad, its clone the Tandy NTS Dream-Writer and even the H&S Technology Quickpad and the all-black Sinclair Cambridge Z88 were A4 in size,15mm or so thick, and had 48 hour battery life. And they were light.

The eight line by 80 character letterbox screens meant you could not edit on them, but they were incredible for entering raw data; ideal for typing up that first rough draft on the train back from the Midlands in the knowledge that the batteries were good for another whole day; and that you could slip them in your briefcase and not notice the difference in weight. But they were not fashionable.

Their place has been taken, in a way, by the PDA (personal digital assistant or electronic Filofax); with really small size, long battery life, appropriate technology and so on.

But entering anything in a PDA is a serious pain, which is why most can be plugged into a computer to upload information you have set up in the office. I know handwriting recognition has come a long way and I know you can peck away on a simulated keypad on the screen with a stylus, but entering data such as words is tedious and annoying.

Until, that is, the arrival of the Targus Stowaway portable keyboard. It was with great difficulty that I managed to prize the test model from the AJ's editorial offices. It is an anonymous plastic block, 90mm by 130mm and just 20mm thick. You click the button and the board unfolds into a four-section, full-size keyboard. You slide the two outside sections inwards and there is a more or less rigid keyboard on to which you click your handspring PDA. The similar keyboard for the Palm is badged Palm, but I bet Targus makes it. Unfortunately, they are not interchangeable although both computers use the Palm operating system. The Targus keyboard needs a flat surface but if you are going to type you tend to do it at a table or desk anyway. You transfer the material into your office computer by infra-red for editing.

The Stowaway is excellent, providing you have an existence sufficiently complex to call for an electronic Filofax or data recorder - which, one suspects, is true of most architects.

Maplin, the big electronic-parts supplier, has been selling a roll-up keypad for about £70. It is made from flexible rubber which you unroll and, after plugging in to your computer, you can type away. We have not tested it: a recent report in the computer press suggests that it is a pig to use but creates quite a sensation. If briefly.

The future of thin and light is to be found at ElekTex (www.elektex.com). This company claims to have developed a fabric keypad in which you wrap your PDA.

It is made from what ElekTex calls EletroTextiles. You unwrap the PDA and start typing on the wrapping. It will probably incorporate its own version of those scratch-and-seek finger pads with which most current laptops come. The fabric keyboard has the terrific name, soft&Qwerty. According to the blurb it 'gives a tactile feel unlike anything else'. It should be available next year.

But best of all surely is not having to use a keyboard at all. AJ spent a morning in an architect's office with the Speech Recognition Company. It has had great successes with lawyers and banks, but at the end of the session we all concluded that, for this year at least, its profession-specific version of speech recognition was not for architects.

It uses standard recognition engines, such as Dragon, Learnout, Hauspie and IBM, and tweaks the vocabularies to pick up professional jargon immediately. What our architect, Pero Maticevic of Fletcher Priest, wanted was the ability to speak on site to a dictaphone-like recorder and plug it into the computer back at base, where it could be converted into a Word document.

That time is not yet. Victorian clerks used to write notes on their cuffs. Maybe ElekTex will build its fabric keyboards into shirts.

Further advances mean that you will not even have to speak at all. At November's Comdex trade exhibition in the US the CyclopX 3D navigator was demonstrated. You strap it on your head and it tracks your eye movement. Terrible for drawings when that young thing from the sandwich bar downstairs comes in.

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