CBC Venture - Air Date: February 10, 1991
Howard Green, award-winning writer and director of documentary programmes for The Nature of Things, History Television, and Newsworld, has been a regular contributor to CBC TV's Venture, reporting on business since 1988.
He has also covered Canadian business issues for PBS' Nightly Business Report and in recent years has been a regular presence on CBC TV's Undercurrents, chronicling information-age subjects.
He is currently an on-air personality for Report on Business Television.
Note to the Reader
Please bear in mind that this piece was done in 1990-91.
The industry has changed considerably since that time.
In 1990, handheld computers were still called "pocket computers." 3Com's PalmPilot did not exist. Even the Internet was not the phenomenon that it is today. The world was a much different place then.
A youthful mind is a rich resource anywhere, but especially in the computer industry. After all, Steve Jobs was just a kid when he turned Apple Computer into a house of profit.
And now, Venture's Howard Green has discovered a young man, at one of our universities, who wants to be Canada's version of Steve Jobs.
But while his idea for a new kind of computer is clever, it's a long way from payday . . .
Edgar Matias has no spare time.
Only 21, he's already patenting inventions which he hopes will line his pockets.
The brain wave of the moment is a new keyboard, designed for mini computers like these.
While pocket computers are cute and functional, they're too small for the touch typist. Two hands just won't fit the real estate.
But Edgar thinks pocket computers can stay small and satisfy the touch typist, thanks to his idea of course.
"I was sitting in English class . . . and basically staring off into the distance . . . and I thought of . . . assign two letters to a key."
Two letters to a key. What Edgar's done is split the conventional keyboard in half, then flipped one half under the other and assigned two letters per key. This way the touch typist can use similar moves, but with just one hand. A simple option key allows for the switching.
Smart yes, but will it sell?
"I don't want to [sound] cocky, but I don't see how the first one can fail."
Others in this UofT physics class may try to look rebellious, but it comes naturally to our Edgar.
He calls himself a physics major, but the fact is he's dropped every class except physics, so he can work on the one hander. He says he only stays enrolled so his parents won't throw him out of the house.
But staying in school also gives him access to this man: Bill Buxton. He's a prof. at UofT and consults in California's Silicon Valley. Buxton's an expert in keyboards, joysticks, and mice, and Edgar wants him as his quarterback
Edgar has no prototype yet, just a programme to demonstrate.
"That's okay. Leave the errors in."
"Leave the errors in?"
"Okay. Should I bother with capitals?"
"Well, sure." "Yeah."
"Ah, come on . . ."
Buxton wants to know how easy it is for someone to adapt to the keyboard. Used as an electronic notepad, it has to allow the user to beat the speed of handwriting.
"It's a cost / benefit analysis. Is it worth the effort to learn?"
Throughout history, typists of the world have said "no." The standard keyboard was actually designed to slow down typists, so the keys in early typewriters wouldn't jam.
When computers arrived, keyboards could've changed, but didn't. Too much trouble to learn a new way to type.
Edgar's not the first to invent a one hander. Buxton's brought along three, and he says none of them were commercially successful.
"This keyboard here was designed by Doug Engelbart. He invented the mouse at Stanford Research Institute, and he could type the alphabet on this, and this is like a piano keyboard. It works on either hand, because it's symmetrical, but you certainly . . . If you compare it with the conventional keyboard, the [keys] aren't labeled. So like a trumpet, you play combinations, and so on. I never learned how to type on this one. Very few people did, besides Engelbart."
But Buxton agrees to help Edgar anyway. He'll fund and oversee a scientific test of the idea. However, he still only gives it a 1 in 50 chance of success.
"If you think that the prognosis isn't good, then why don't you tell him that he's wasting his time?"
"Oh, because I'm a dreamer. Just because the status quo has this inertia, doesn't mean it's right. I think the status quo's outrageous. I think computers are abysmal. We've had incredible lazy design and lack of innovation. Most computer manufacturers right now (1990) are introducing products which are no different essentially than what was introduced by Xerox and Apple in 1982."
"What I was thinking of doing is talking to one of those third party keyboard manufacturers. They're always looking for gimmicks to promote theirs instead of Apple and IBM's. This would be a legitimate way of them selling their products . . ."
Edgar has to makeup his mind. Buxton has told him not just to think pocket computer, but desktop too: desktop software.
He says computer users might like using just one hand to type, while using the other to guide the mouse - a potential time saver. So what to do?
Edgar calls a meeting of senior management: buddies who are also shareholders. Meet Jim, VP of Personnel, and Steve, VP of Finance.
"Four new shareholders: a thousand from a cousin of mine, $500 from my godfather . . ."
The finances are in order, but the number 2 men are skeptical of the boss, who they fear has lost the vision thing.
(Jim) "I think we're sort-of killing our whole [impact] to the introduction of the pocket computer. Don't you think?"
"The relevance is that if we can get accepted into the desktop market with a relatively small amount of effort and investment, then it would make it a hell of a lot easier to approach the pocket computer market."
In the end, there's agreement in the executive suite, but Edgar will also work on the prototype for the pocket computer.
Proving he doesn't squander shareholders' money, Edgar buys his parts at a local surplus store.
Two $4 keyboards - 8 bucks.
In late November (1990), the President of Matias Corporation starts building.
"If you were to hire somebody to build you an actual prototype, it would probably cost a lot of money . . . and I don't have a lot of money."
Nothing seems to discourage him; not even headlines like this . . . which forecast the demise of the computer keyboard in favor of printing on screens.
"What I should ask you is: What the hell does the guy who wrote the article know about computers?"
But it's not just the press that predicts the decline and fall of the keyboard. Martin Tuori, of Toronto's Alias Research (known worldwide for its 3D design software), says keyboards will become less important.
"It's a little bit like in today's kitchens. People still have electric stoves and gas stoves, but they don't use them as much as they used to because they've got a microwave, and they do a lot more stuff in the microwave, and use the stove when they really need it."
It's now late January (1991). Two and a half months since meeting with Buxton, there's no software, but there is hardware.
Although there's no snazzy packaging, the prototype is finished, and Edgar's brought in some friends for reaction . . .
This victim doesn't warm to the system at all . . .
The other one also has problems at the start, but after 15 minutes, she gets the hang of it.
"I find myself switching to standard touch-type situation, where I don't look at the keys; I don't look at the screen or what I've typed, just what I'm typing."
Provided the official tests go well, and Edgar's able to sell the sizzle, how much could the one hander make?
"The answer is basically to try and get them to licence it and either on a royalty . . ."
"What does that mean?"
"Well, that basically says, give me a small royalty . . ."
"Very small . . ."
"Like nickels per product, or what?"
"Oh, he'd be lucky to get a . . . If he got a nickel a product, that'd be great."
Edgar says he's got the patience to see this through, even if there's only a 1 in 50 chance of success.
"I have no other choice. I've already invested over $4,000 of my own money, and I have other people who've invested, all together, well over $10,000 . . . which probably doesn't sound like a lot . . . as far as an entrepreneurial venture, but still. I'm responsible to those people, to see if I can make this work to the best of my abilities, so I have no other choice."
For Venture, I'm Howard Green.