Q&A: This father-and-son duo is building an iPhone case with a built-in keyboard

Father and son team Robert and Cody Solomon holding their Spike keyboards. (Erynn Rose photo)

The iPhone is (arguably) the most beautiful piece of consumer technology introduced in the past few years, but it doesn’t come without “flaws.” And one of the main features that consumers (at least old BlackBerry lovers) miss is … the physical keyboard.

Fear no more, you intrepid typists. The father-and-son duo of Robert and Cody Solomon have developed an iPhone case that also doubles as a tactile keyboard when needed. The Solomons were our guests on the latest GeekWire radio show and podcast.

Dubbed the Spike, the accessory comes in two different models that will sell at two price points.  The cheaper option (estimated price of $35 when it goes on sale), the Spike 1, features a split case whose bottom part can be taken off, flipped around, and put back on to use a full QWERTY keyboard.  The keyboard is also hinged as to offer a full screen experience when typing is not needed.  The more expensive model, the Spike 2, for an estimated $60, offers a case with a keyboard option that swivels from the back of the phone when needed instead of requiring the user to remove half of the case.

Robert, the father, has extensive experience working in the keyboard industry, developing early keyboards that were used by a variety of hardware company.  He also has a bit of history in the aerospace industry (more on that below in the questions and answers below).  The father-and-son team has been working together for a while — in fact Cody used to work with his father on keyboards back when he was a kid.

Armed with a great idea and a prototype, the Spike team set out on Kickstarter to get some early backing and raise a targeted $75,000.  Last Wednesday, they flew by that goal with 24 days left until, with total funding now topping more than $82,000 from nearly 1,000 backers.  Below you can find their Kickstarter video.

If you missed the show, or just prefer text, here are highlights from his conversation with GeekWire’s Todd Bishop and John Cook:

Could you explain what the keyboard is that you’ve come up with for the iPhone?

Cody: “A lot of people have a problem typing on glass and what we’ve done is, try to give you the best of both worlds.  If you want to type on the …. iPhone, a tactile keyboard is a good option.  At the same time you need the keyboard to get out of the way and have your phone go back to being a full screen functional iPhone.”

As people have shifted more to touchscreen devices are people losing the desire for that tactile experience?

Robert: “Well, here’s the experience I often see.  Let’s take a lawyer who has always had a Blackberry but he wants to be cool too.  One day the IT department in his law firm tell him that they can now give out iPhones.  He then gets the the iPhone but really hates the keyboard it offers.  He can’t type on it and makes a thousand mistakes.  After about ninety days, he gets used to it.  The problem is that the way he works has now changed.  Instead of sitting in Starbucks and typing out a full email reply on his Blackberry, he now types out a few words like “I’ll get back to you when I’m in front of my PC.”  His work habits have changed and I don’t think necessarily in a positive way.  People get used to the iPhone’s bad keyboard but they change the way they work.  We’re trying to let them have both the ability to sit in Starbucks and type a whole document without mistakes, and then go back to playing Angry Birds on a full screen.”

It seems that a lot of the items put up on Kickstarter are iPhone and iPad accessories.  Why do you think it is that Kickstarted attracts these types of products?

Cody: ”I think the community behind Kickstarter is really tech oriented.  They are early adopters.  They are agreeing to buy a product before it even exists!  That seems to really coincide with a lot of the Apple community.  They like cool products, they like them to look good, and they like that feeling of “you can’t get it yet.”  They want to be the first one with your iPhone 4 or iPhone 5 and it goes the same with the accessories that you see on Kickstarter.”

Robert, tell us a little about your background.  How did you get into the keyboard business?

Robert: “I started off in aerospace when I was Cody’s age. I specifically built rocket motors for many years and sold the company at a young age to Teledyne.  I ended up getting into the keyboard business completely by accident.  I had a small software company that I sold out to Borland.  I developed a product that became one of the best selling pieces of software in history (called Sidekick).  Ater I sold out to Borland, either I had to work for them or do something else, and I chose something else for a multitude of reasons and ended up in the keyboard business.”

We’re seeing a real revolution in terms of computer interfaces.  For example, Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensor technology move from game consoles to PC’s.  Where do you see all of this going and do you ever see a day where we actually don’t use a traditional hard keyboard to interact with our PCs on our desktops?

GeekWire airs on 97.3 KIRO-FM in Seattle at 7 a.m. every Saturday, and 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. every Sunday. The show runs every weekend on GeekWire.com. You can get every episode using this RSS feed, or by subscribing in iTunes or Zune.

Tune in this weekend when we’ll be talking with guest David Geller of EyeJot.

 Cody: “I think there’s always a push to change the way that we interface with our technology, for example, things like Siri on the new iPhone.  It’s kind of cool technology but you don’t see people talking to their phones to write entire emails because it looks a bit ridiculous, the same way waving your hands around a computer to control it does.  People like the cool options but there is still an element of conservatism involved especially with typing on a keyboard.  People are used to  it and they are resistant to change.  They want to have that option and we’re trying to provide that on the iPhone.”

Robert: “My only comment on that is, when I ended up in the keyboard business by accident, everybody said voice is coming and you’re out of business.  Well that was 25 years ago and we’re still in business.  Right now with smartphones moving away from keyboards, it does not mean that customers are moving away.  It may mean they become more accustomed to a soft product but we view the fact that smartphone manufacturers are dropping keyboards as an opportunity for us.  Our technology is applicable to any touch-screen product.  We see ourselves building keyboards horizontally for other popular smart phones while also going into the tablet space.

People might be under the impression that when you press the keys the keyboard is actually touching the screen of your phone but that’t not what’s happening right?”

Cody: “Yeah, that’s one of the common misconceptions about how people think our keyboard is working.  Another is that it’s bluetooth, which it is not.  Neither is true.  Our keyboards are nonconductive (unlike a stylus that conducts electricity through your hand) so you can actually push them with gloves on and it will still register on the screen.  As for how it actually works, we’d rather not say.  We just filed for our patent a couple of week ago.  What we do is provide a new way that requires no external power source, no Bluetooth, we don’t plug in to anything.  Any device that has a screen you can do gesturing on, we have a unique way of communicating with that screen technology.”

GeekWire airs on 97.3 KIRO-FM in Seattle at 7 a.m. every Saturday, and 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. every Sunday. The show runs every weekend on GeekWire.com. You can get every episode using this RSS feed, or by subscribing in iTunes or Zune. Also access the podcast archive on GeekWire.

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