The Keyport 717. (evaluation) Stephen Kimmel.
The Keyport 717
As Winnie the Poon might say "You never can tell about computer shows.' Sometimes even the most obscure regional computer show will hold a startling new device or two. Tulsa, OK, for example, is not widely known as a hotbed of personal computers or peripherals. One display, however, seemed particularly noteworth. On one side was a Lisa--looking lonely and forlorn. She was being irnored by the large crowd on the other side of the display. After playing with Lisa, I joined the mob. They were crowding around an old Apple II. The real attraction that was shutting down the Lisa wasn't the Apple II but the peripheral hooked to it. The Keyport 717.
A digression: one of the easy criteria you can use to judge the ease of use of a personal computer is number of keys. Generally, the more keys the better. My typewriter has 54 keys. That would be barely adequate for a computer. My computer has 77 keys. The TRS-80 Model 12 has 82.
One glance at the Keyport 717 tells you exactly what it is and how you use it. It also tells you that the number of keys discussion is now over. The crowd pleaser at the Tulsa computer show was operating an Apple II with a customized VisiCalc keyboard with 286 "keys.'
The Keyport 717 is a fully user programmable flat membrane keyboard that measures 11 by 24 and has 717 small pressure switches available to use as keys. The basic unit sells for $179.95 with a utility disk and two user overlays and Basic overlay. (You could hook the unit to almost any computer right now but only the Apple has the software driver.) The applications packages consist of a specialized software driver and a printed overlay sheet that sits on top of the Keyport 707. It also comes with a 2 X 12 X 25 case that can be used to carry the various overlays and disks.
Like most membrane keyboards, the Keyport 717 is impervious to liquids (coffee, soda pop, jelly etc.) and is virtually indestructible. The Polytel people started sweating when I asked if I could stand on the thing, and they looked more than a little nervous when I started jabbing it with my pencil. The keyboard survived both tests, though they aren't recommended. You could, theoretically, poke a hole in the plastic covering. Since the keyboard has no electronics or moving parts, about the only way to damage the thing is to short it out by creasing it or poking holes in it.
Oh. Didn't I tell you how thick it is? My apologies. The Keyport 717 without the carrying case, is about 1/16th of an inch thick. Placed on your desktop, it is no thicker than a blotter. It can also be used up to 200 feet away from the computer it is driving. To help you visualize that, pick a starting point at the end of a very long corridor or sidewalk. Take 100 steps. Turn around and look at where you started. That's where the computer is while you are handling the Keyport 717. Two questions instantly come to mind. Who could read an 80-column display at that range? Who would want to? Obviously, the practical result of this is that you can run the ribbon cable any way that is convenient and still have plenty of latitude about where you put the computer and keyboard.
Consider some of the possibilities. Suppose you are a teacher with a single computer and classroom full of kids. You are trying to demonstrate something on the Apple. You could type on the keyboard blocking the student's view, or you could stand at the back of the room and press a single key on the Keyport 717. You could than pass the keyboard around the room to let all the students have a turn.
Or suppose that you are a busy businessman and you don't want to take up a lot of room on your desk with a computer. You take the Keyport 717 and make it part of your blotter and mount the computer some place safe and secure.
Or how about security applications? The Keyport 717 is a cheap, waterproof remote terminal. Think about it. Where could you use an almost perfectly flat keyboard with an almost infinite number of fully programmable keys? How about a kid-proof keyboard?
There are three application overlay/programs. Each of these consists of a program and a database to drive the keyboard and a printed sheet of plastic to set atop the Keyport 717. There is, for example, the Basic programming overlay which is easily the best looking of the three.
In addition to a conventional keyboard, this overlay has all of the Applesoft keywords and characters assigned to separate keys. Some of the keys look like keys. Others look like buttons. Still others look like computer chips. If you want to select the lo-res graphics color yellow, just press the yellow printed button. The Basic programming overlay is extremely nice and could easily cut your Basic programming time substantially.
The second application/overlay is a children's educational game called The Farm. Cute. The overlay does show some of the other possibilities for overlay design.
Half of the overlay is a picture of a very busy farm. At the appropriate point in the game, the child doesn't hit the cow button or type the word cow; he simply touches the cow.
The third application package is my favorite. It is the VisiCalc overlay. All of the VisiCalc commands and control keys are there, each with its own key. There is also a set of programmable keys.
Let's see. We want to work on the Tyrone budget for 1983. Press Load Task 1, and a few seconds later I am working on the fate of a hundred workers at our Tyrone plant. Easy as that was, I found the Keyport 717 really shined when constructing the spreadsheet. My guess is that it cut my time by a third.
There are other applications packages in the works. Two of the more interesting are the Apple Writer package and the Apple Logo package. Think what you could do with 717 Keys on one of those. And you aren't limited to their applications packages. It is fairly easy to create your own applications.
Of course, there are a few warts on even this exceptional product. Two come immediately to mind. The first is the classic complaint about membrane keyboards. It is utterly impossible to touch type on the Keyport 717. It did take me a while to get used to the Keyport 717. The feel is not like a typewriter keyboard, and there seems to be an unlimited number of choices. Each of the pressure switches is a discrete location, and for a while I missed the keys. That was quickly overcome. But then the Keyport 717 doesn't lock out the regular keyboard. When you want to type quickly, you can use the regular keyboard. If you want to rush through something else, use the Keyport 717.
How about a two-player game in which each player could have his own keyboard? Or a foreign language overlay printed in the foreign language; how about a Japanese keyboard?
The other complaint may be more serious. The Keyport 717 monitor and data table consume memory. The monitor takes nearly 2K while the data tables can take as much as 8K or about 11 keystrokes for each of the 717 programmable keys. For some applications this could easily be critical. Lives there a soul who has never run out of memory? Most Keyport 717 applications, though, use only 300 or so of the keys with about six strokes per key. That would mean a 4K loss of memory. A small price to pay for greatness.
How about making a target out of your Keyport 717? You could hang it on the wall and shoot dart guns at it. Or how about using it as the base for an animal behaviour experiment. You build the rat's maze on top of the Keyport 717 and let it send the data about where the rat is to the computer.
Installation And Documentation
The unit is a piece of cake to install. (If you have never installed cake in your personal computer, see the April 1964 issue of this magazine.) You just plug it into the game port.
There is also a software portion of the process. Each Keyport 171-computer pair must be calibrated once. When the initialization program prompts, you press a line of keys across the unit and another line the other way. The whole process takes about five minutes, and you never have to do it again. I have seen gummed labels that were harder to install.
The documentation and instructional manuals are clear and succinct.
In a matter of minutes, I was well on my way to having all 717 keys respond with either Creative Computing or Stephen Kimmel.
Of course, that is not how you want to design a Keyport 717 overlay. You need to give careful thought to what functions you want to automate. Which ones do you want to group together? Where do you want to put them on the keyboard? The manual contains a chapter on designing a Keyport application that is simple and easy to follow without being condescending.
How about a romantic novel writer with each key programmed for a different trite cliche? In minutes your cat could be Barbara Cartland. More seriously, a lawyer could program it to call up certain repetitive phrases at the press of a key.
I like the Keyport 717 very much. It is one of the finest Apple peripherals I have seen in a long time. And soon TRS-80, IBM, Commodore 64, and Atari owners will be able to buy them too.
Products: Keyport 717 (computer apparatus)