I got into TREG. I do not have the new firmware. TL;DR The TextBlade is amazing.
First, I would like to apologize if my language feels dismissive or condescending. That is not my intent. I know you are frustrated. You have every right to be. I am frustrated too, but I can no longer say I share your frustration. My frustration is quantitatively much less and qualitatively different than yours. Because many of you have been waiting as long as, or longer, than I have to get the TextBlade, I feel obligated to share my experience with you.
This is not a plea to put your faith in WayTools. My language will be more favorable towards the company, but that does not invalidate negative criticism that they have earned. Do not interpret my remarks as representations of actual company claims or policy. This is my interpretation of my interaction with Mark, with the application, and with the device.
Six months after I got a call from Jennifer at WayTools, I got another call from WayTools. This time, it was Mark. Mark asked me if I had time to briefly talk. When the call ended two and a half hours later, I felt like I had a much better understanding of the company and what they are trying to accomplish with the TextBlade. People tend to gloss over phone calls with Mark, saying they are long and interesting. I want to discuss that more in depth because I believe it gave me insight into the company that has not been effectively communicated in the past.
Regarding Apple and Tesla
The first call was an ice breaker and when I was informed that I would be accepted into the TREG program. I don’t remember most of the details of what we discussed but I do remember the general course of the conversation. Mark does frequently reference Tesla and Apple in his conversations. He recounts the things those companies did to disrupt the market and take the lead in the market. He talks about how people were dismissive of the first iPhone. He talks about how engineers at GM developed an electronic vehicle decades before Tesla, and mentions that Tesla is now worth twice as much as GM. Many people interpret these frequent references as WayTools comparing themselves to industry giants Tesla and Apple and expressing their desire to emulate these companies. It’s an easy assumption to make but after talking with Mark I think that assumption is flawed.
For additional context, read this recent TextBlade forum post from WayTools. iMac screwed up - upgrade to 4K
It is decidedly critical of Apple’s recent design decisions and the motivation for making them. During a subsequent call, Mark spent some time discussing the keyboard cover that Apple released for the iPad. Apple charges $200 for a product that does not protect the $1000 iPad Pro from drops. The materials in the case cost nowhere near $200. My conversation with Mark and the WayTools posts on forum highlights a commonly held misconception that WayTools worships at the altar of Apple and Tesla. I now believe that WayTools worships at the altar of innovation and good design. When companies embody those traits, WayTools acknowledges those companies as a means to communicate the goals and ideals that WayTools has for itself. WayTools’ harsh criticism of recent product design decisions by Apple clearly indicates that WayTools does not wish to blindly emulate these technology giants, but strives to duplicate behaviors that allowed them to (buzzword trigger warning) disrupt markets and rise to the top of the industry.
It’s been four years since the TextBlade went on sale. It still hasn’t shipped. WayTools could have released the TextBlade by now. Apple makes compromises. They release imperfect products. Many customers (myself included) have asked for this. WayTools won’t do this. They won’t compromise because they have a vision, and that vision is not guided by the desire to make a quick buck. WayTools is striving to create a product that lives up to the ideals of innovation and good design without copying the mistakes that Apple has made. Recall that WayTools post I linked to earlier. It claims that trust is a precious commodity that grows a business, that choosing higher profits over customer needs affects the relationship with customers. There have been many times when WayTools could have done a better job of communicating with customers, and I feel that WayTools’ interactions with a few customers have been draconian, but I also feel that WayTools really seeks to succeed by aligning its product design with customers’ interests.
For four years, WayTools has postponed the opportunity to realise profits on a product that was, to outward appearances, sellable. Remarks about a never-ending development cycle and about pursuing perfection at the expense of releasing a viable product are valid concerns but I feel that WayTools needs the TextBlade to be more than exceptional because it is so different that there may be some challenge to reach critical mass from a market that has accepted typing on glass and chiclet keyboards.
WayTools’ customers – the people who’ve been waiting for years for a product they’ve already paid for – see the value of the TextBlade. We recognize how it can improve our lives and why it is worth the effort to retrain muscle memory in order to use it. But if it ultimately does not provide a nearly flawless experience how likely are we to continue to use it? No one who’s seen my TextBlade has expressed the desire to use it or learn more about it. How much of the market is comprised of people who don’t yet recognize or care about what the TextBlade does? If the TextBlade does not provide a flawless performance, how likely are these people to adopt it?
Regarding Mark’s involvement with TREG members
The day I received my TREG unit, I got a second call from Mark. The call was cut short at about two and a half hours because the battery on the iPod died (audio FaceTime). People complain about Mark spending hours on the phone with TREG members while WayTools doesn’t bother to provide updates to its customers. It’s true that WayTools could have done a better job of communicating to its customers. But, no one discusses why he does this. He’s not wasting his time. The CEO himself is personally spending a lot of time training and familiarizing every member about TREG to ensure that they have the information necessary to utilize all device and application features and contribute meaningful data to the company to improve the product. He is actively managing product development by personally engaging with every TREG member to maximize the effectiveness of the TREG program. Think about how much longer the development cycle would be if the TREG users took their own time to discover all the features of the TextBlade. WayTools needs us to get up and running as soon as possible, to start exploring the features of the device and the software so that we can effectively field test and return data to the company. The hours-long phone calls accomplish this and serve to communicate the company’s vision and commitment to the product, and inspire in us the passion that WayTools itself has for this product. WayTools believes that they will serve the customer best by delivering an amazing product.
One thing that became clear during the second phone call with Mark is that Mark is an engineer through and through, and I get the impression that WayTools is staffed by like-minded people. His passion for good design is evident when he discusses the engineering that has gone into creating the TextBlade. It is interesting to hear him talk about not just the features of the device but the materials, the assembly, and the algorithms that allow the TextBlade to determine which key the user intended to touch when an ambiguous keystroke is made. I wish that everyone could hear Mark talk about the TextBlade. It’s especially refreshing to hear Mark talk about respect for privacy in an age when it seems like every corporation and service is greedy for every bit of personal information they can grab.
Regarding the TextBlade
Ten minutes after first using the TextBlade I was ready to commit. The sound and feel of typing on the TextBlade are delightful. It’s quieter than rubber dome and laptop keyboards. The keys have a nice soft tactile bump. Playing with the KeyBlades is kind of like popping bubble wrap, though with much less effort. And typing itself is effortless. I thought about writing a review right then but decided to wait a week to make sure my evaluation was not based on the excitement of receiving the thing I had waited nearly 4 years to get.
The term layout is often used to refer to both the physical arrangement of keys on a keyboard, and the logical assignment of alphanumeric and modifier functions to the keys. I will be discussing both so, in order to prevent confusion, I will use the term “layout” to refer to the physical layout and the term “keymap” to refer to the logical key arrangement (e.g. QWERTY, Dvorak, etc.).
I use the Colemak keymap. It took me about 10 minutes to acclimate to the TextBlade. I occasionally make mistakes due to improper hand positioning but I have not needed to adjust key boundaries. The two most common mistakes I make (maybe once or twice a day) relate to trying to strike the “o” key. Either I overextend my pinky and hit the return key or I misposition my right hand and hit the slash key that is below the “o” key. I am effective enough with the TextBlade to use it at work.
Your experience may vary but I credit my quick transition to the fact that I’ve been using the same custom keyboard for years and many of the keymap design choices made for the TextBlade are the same choices I made for my custom keyboard. My keymap has a layer that is activated by a function key that lies in the center of the spacebar area. I carried this keyboard with me every day for years because it was so superior to other keyboards that even working on a standard Colemak keyboard that also had layers was a chore compared to how effective I was with my custom keyboard. My keyboard allows me to do a lot of work without taking my hands off home row. In some edge cases, my keyboard excels at chording that involves multiple modifier keys versus TextBlade out of the box but I’m going to abandon my keyboard because the TextBlade does so much more than my keyboard and it performs so much better.
Unlike my keyboard, the TextBlade design is much smarter when it comes to distributing work to the pinkies. Look at your keyboard. Look at how many keys your right pinky is responsible for. After decades of touch typing, I still have issues with correctly selecting the dash key and the equals key on that layout. The TextBlade greatly eases the burden on the pinkies: the shortest and weakest fingers.
If you have a Windows computer and want to get a feel for the functionality that the TextBlade offers or get a headstart on the transition to replacing your keyboard with the TextBlade, try an application named TouchCursor. It maps nav cluster keys around your right-hand home row. This secondary layer is activated by pressing and holding the spacebar down, just like with the TextBlade. You can customize the key mappings to make it more like the TextBlade’s green layer. Or, you can create a keymap that is more suitable to your needs and, later on, edit the TextBlade’s green layer to match your preferred keymap.
If you’re reading this on your desktop or laptop monitor, put your hands on the home row of your keyboard. Look at how many keys your pinkies are responsible for. Look at how many keys your thumbs are responsible for. The pinkies are overloaded and both thumbs are squandered on a single key. Assigning more work to the thumbs is just smart design. Doing it in a manner that doubles the amount of work you can do without moving your hands away from home row is great design. That is what the TextBlade accomplishes.
Using the nav keys without having to take your hand off home row is an amazing time saver. Some keyboard manufacturers map the arrow keys to an alternate layer on the home row, but the fact that most manufacturers do not indicates to me how stagnant and lazy the industry is. Many of the few manufacturers who do provide home row navigation place the layer switching key in a location that requires you to move your hand away from its natural position on the keyboard, thus negating most of the benefits of having the home row nav cluster in the first place. WayTools absolutely nailed this feature. They put the layer switching key in a location that does not require you to move your hands away from their natural position. Even better, numbers and symbols are on the same layer, so you don’t have to use your pinkies to activate symbols with the shift key. The symbols are mapped to the same fingers as they are on a standard keyboard, but one row lower than numbers, so there is no additional cognitive load to typing an asterisk on the TextBlade, compared to typing on a standard keyboard.
One thing that I wish I thought of when I made the keymap on my keyboard is the activation of the shift keys. A key that does not produce a character but modifies the character produced by the next key that is tapped is called a dead key. When Mark mentioned activating the shift key by tapping and releasing it, I responded that the world’s fastest typist did not use shift keys to capitalize words but I couldn’t remember his name. Mark immediately stepped in to recount what I was trying to say. Sean Wrona won a typing championship. When footage of his typing was reviewed, it was discovered that Sean did not use the shift keys. Sean capitalized letters by tapping the caps lock key, then typing a letter, then tapping the caps lock key again to disable caps lock. It was actually faster for him to tap a key twice to capitalize letters than it was to press and hold a single key. Mark knew immediately what I intended to say and why it was relevant; another example of the design effort that went into the TextBlade.
I’ve spent years paying attention to how I interact with keyboards. The first time I used the dead key shift function on the TextBlade, I was shocked by how much better it is than pressing and holding the shift key. As long as you need to capitalize a letter on a standard keyboard, your hand is immobilized until you can release the shift key. With the TextBlade, your hand is occupied only as long as it takes to tap the shift key. Even better, there is no dedicated caps lock key taking up space on the TextBlade. Caps lock is activated by double-tapping a shift key and deactivated by tapping a shift key one more time.
The TextBlade gives you every feature that a full-size keyboard gives you in a fraction of the space, and then gives you more (I know I sound like a commercial). Hand and finger travel is vastly reduced. Features that require you to move your hands to the far ends of a full-size keyboard can be activated without moving your hands on the TextBlade. Even better, the TextBlade gives you a consistent experience across all devices. The commands to cut, copy, and paste text; or adjust the media player volume, or navigate to the next page, or switch focus to another open application will be the same, regardless of which OS your device has.
Switching between devices is quick and effortless with jumps. And the TextBlade’s uniform function keymaps eliminate the reduction of productivity caused by the need to acclimate to another OS’s keymap. But you always have the option to customize your maps to suit specific use cases on specific devices. I haven’t even begun to explore creating my own chords on the function layer to give me extra time and work saving functions. Are you a Linux admin? Imagine carrying some diagnostic scripts on your TextBlade. Plug the dongle into a machine, open vim, then execute a macro to automatically write the entire script into the text editor. Then, save and execute the script. Or execute a macro to automatically type out a call to the package manager to install commonly missing programs/commands you need to do your work.
My keyboard stays home now and the TextBlade goes everywhere with me. I’ve used it on Win 10, iOS, Android, and Linux (in a virtual machine). Because of the TextBlade, I discovered that there is a limit to the size of memos in my phone’s Memo app. With the TextBlade, even my Galaxy S5 becomes a perfectly capable text editor, allowing me to edit a document in Google Docs on my computer at home, then go remote with nothing more than my phone and my TextBlade and work anywhere that there’s a flat surface to place my phone and TextBlade on. With a capable smartphone, TextBlade gives you ultra-mobile computing capability for standard business functions and light code editing. The only reason that I still use my custom keyboard is that, in my haste to use the TextBlade when I received it, I did not RTFM and ended up borking the drivers on the dongle. Once I figure out how to keep the dongle in HID mode, the TextBlade will be the only keyboard I use anywhere.
I’ve said that WayTools wants to release an amazing product, and I’ve said that the TextBlade is amazing. I won’t call out the company to release the TextBlade immediately. Regardless of my feelings or opinions, WayTools won’t release until the new code fork is ready, and this makes sense to me. Over the air updates take time and there’s no guarantee that everyone will update. This will require WayTools to support two different versions of software, drastically increasing their workload and impeding progress towards completing the new firmware. Maybe WayTools could get away with releasing the TextBlade with a few known bugs in the firmware but there is an argument to be made against this. The TextBlade is radically different from other keyboards on the mass market. While users adjust to the TextBlade’s software and feature set, there will likely be an increase in misunderstandings about features or users overlooking a step that is needed to take advantage of a feature. User error will create noise that masks real issues and will increase the time it takes WayTools to identify and diagnose these issues.
I am a perfect example of this. I noticed that some of the edit layer keys weren’t working in some applications. I thought this might be a bug that would be worked out in new firmware or this might be a limitation of the application I was using (unsupported edit commands). User itimpi guessed what my problem was and set me straight. I did not select the correct OS for the jump slot I was using. I’d already been using the TextBlade for days when I made this error. How well can WayTools support their product when they have a deluge of issues like this to work through in addition to real issues that may be discovered? A single firmware version in the wild will allow WayTools to dedicate more resources toward fixing real issues and improving the firmware and adding more features.
The new code fork will free up device resources to allow WayTools to do much more with the existing hardware. The current firmware version requires WayTools to put extra work into fixing current issues. I don’t know what new features/enhancements WayTools has planned with the new firmware, but I know it has user Verxion extremely excited (I just received my TREG unit, this thing is AMAZING! - Verxion) and he’s got decades of experience in IT. I have a feeling that good progress is being made on completing the new firmware and that people are confident that the TextBlade will be ready for GR soon after the new code fork passes QA.
I want you guys to get your TextBlades. I want you to love them as much as I love the one I’m using. I want WayTools to wildly succeed so I don’t have to go back to using any other keyboard, and so I can buy the next innovative product that they create.
A good product fulfills your needs and meets your expectations. A great product excels at fulfilling your needs and exceeds your expectations. I think the TextBlade will be more than a great product.