Switched On: A keyboard PC seeks to Eee-peat success

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

The original Asus Eee PC took on the challenging North American market for a small notebook PC and was so successful that it created a new wave of product that's turned the PC business upside down. And although Asus has since released over a dozen permutations of its original Eee PC notebook as well as several desktop models both with and without integrated monitors, its next big test will be a keyboard.

A top-slice reincarnation of the pioneering Commodore 64, the Eee Keyboard has a full complement of ports and can run Windows, but its two standout features are a 5" LCD that replaces the numeric keyboard and wireless high-definition output to a television. Much like the original Eee PC, it is unlikely that the Eee Keyboard would be anyone's primary PC. In fact, Asus's keyboard-footprint computer will have to overcome a number the same problems PCs and other information products like WebTV have had in the living room. But Asus may be hitting the market at a critical inflection point -- for a few reasons.

First, PCs now have something to offer the living room besides DVR functionality. It's no coincidence that, after years of nay saying the importance of IP support, a wide range of TV manufacturers are now supporting Internet connectivity in their TVs and Blu-ray players. Never before have consumers been able to use the Internet to access such a wide range of commercial programming from services ranging from Amazon On Demand to YouTube.

The PC, though, is nearly a universal client for these video options, and can handle a breadth of TV shows available via streaming. At the recent TechCrunch50 event, a startup called Clicker debuted a service that makes searching for online TV shows at least as convenient as searching for them on a DVR. Furthermore, having video delivered via broadband removes many of the wiring complexities of DVRs and circumvents many of the challenges of interfacing with a locked-down set-top box from a TV service provider.

With the increased penetration of HDTVs featuring high resolution and progressive scanning, TVs are more like PC monitors today than they were during the WebTV days. The unique design of the Eee Keyboard may also be able to overcome some of the challenges faced by previous home theater PC efforts such as HP's Digital Entertainment Center. It is a fraction of the size of an HTPC, and much simpler and quieter. Finally, wireless HD technologies such as the ultra wideband technology slated to be used by the Eee Keyboard enable high-definition video to be transferred from PCs to televisions without HDMI cables.

Another intriguing hardware feature of the Eee keyboard is its 5" touch-screen LCD. This raises intriguing possibilities both for traditional computing (where the screen could hold anything from a simple digital photo to an IM or Twitter client) and in a living room setting, where the screen offers the tantalizing possibility of hosting a programming grid or TV search feature similar to the i.TV app on the iPhone.

But implementation of such technologies could make it difficult for Asus to create the kind of disruptive pricing it did with the original Eee netbook, and consumers have long shown an aversion to using keyboards in the living room, much less ones that would be as large and in need of a charge as often as the Eee Keyboard. The Eee Keyboard may also find itself squeezed between the integration of simple streaming services in the television and affordable netbooks for things requiring better Web access. But in the digital living room that has seen add-on devices struggle, the Eee Keyboard will certainly break out of the set-top box.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.