Switched On: Stowaway from the PDA era

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Their screens lacked color and their apps lacked Internet access, but one thing the PDAs of yore had in common with the smartphones of today was text input that couldn't compare to a full-sized keyboard. The challenge, of course, is that full-sized keyboards generally aren't very good traveling companions for pocket-sized devices. In 2000, a startup called ThinkOutside addressed the issue with the first Stowaway keyboard, an ingeniously designed folding keyboard that used the dock connector of Palm PDAs to create a touch-typing experience that fit in your pocket. (Stowaway designer Phil Baker is the author of the book From Concept to Consumer, which explains how ideas become products that get built overseas and ultimately sold back here).

ThinkOutside went on to create versions for PocketPCs, infrared (to accommodate incompatible dock connector standards) connections, and then finally Bluetooth. The company was eventually purchased by accessory maker Mobility Electronics, which renamed itself iGo after its flagship power adapter product, and eventually cancelled the Stowaway. At the time, PDA sales were sinking and relatively few handsets supported Bluetooth; most of those that did supported only the profiles needed for headsets and speakerphones, not keyboard input.

A mechanical marvel, reviews consistently cited the Stowaway as one of the best -- and certainly most compact, due in part to its lack of a numbers row -- folding keyboards. Today, there are many Bluetooth keyboards on the market, but few folding ones. One being actively developed, the Freedom Pro, folds in half rather than the Stowaway's four parts, creating a thinner but longer folded form. But in a testament to the power of both iGo's shortsightedness and the power of standards, the product has found a new life now that Apple has enabled Bluetooth support in the iPad and iPhone OS 4.0. Its integrated stand can even hold the iPad horizontally, although the support is not as confidence-inspiring as that of the Apple's keyboard dock's rigid back.

And so, the Bluetooth Stowaway keyboards have become a rare commodity. Although it was cancelled years ago, a few new ones are still available, mostly from smaller merchants. At the time of this writing, Amazon had three new ones via its third party marketplace. But, perhaps discouraged by higher prices, only a third -- an atypically low portion -- of those who have viewed the item on Amazon's page have purchased it versus other alternatives.

With the next iPhone almost certainly joining other handsets that support Bluetooth keyboard input, we'll no doubt see new portable Bluetooth keyboards enter the fold, so to speak. But for now, the Stowaway -- despite some of its dated features -- still remains one of the best. If you can't wait for the next wave, you may want to scoop one up before they're gone. And if you're planning to introduce a portable Bluetooth keyboard, you can rest a little easier. A company that would have provided some serious competition thought it lacked the keys to success.

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