Monday, July 21, 2008

Good Product, Bad Product, Angry Customers - Connecting With A Passionate Audience - Matias Tactile Pro Keyboard

For many people, the computer keyboard that they use doesn't matter. If they think about it, maybe their main interest in for an ergonomically shaped one, one with customizable game keys, or some other cool feature like bluetooth for wireless connectivity. Part of this comes from a simple fact -- one one level, other than the shape and color of the plastic, there's not much difference between most keyboards. A keyboard is basically a single chip (I used to work for one of the semiconductor companies that sold these single-chip keyboard brains), connected to a board that holds a bunch of switches that are the keys. After all, how much variety can you get out of that platform? Besides, how important can a keyboard be?

Short answer -- it it can be huge. Your keyboard is probably more important than the driver's seat of your car -- not only do you spend a lot of time working directly with it, but it also shapes how you control the computer. As someone who writes and spends a lot of time on the computer, let me just say -- there are huge differences between keyboards. From the feel of the keys, to the response that they have when you press them, to their size and position, your keyboard is actually something that you're constantly using. If you're not careful, how often do you hit the wrong key when you try to click the backspace or the delete key? How does the size of the shift key compare to the others around it? When you're using your keyboard, your life may be filled with tiny little keyboard frustrations that, on their own may seem small, but add up over the course of the day -- frustrations so small that you don't directly associate them with the quality of the tool that you are using.

When it comes to keyboards, Apple used to make some great ones. My benchmark for keyboards is probably the old Apple Extended Keyboard II. It had great key feel, it made a nice click when you tapped on the keys, the size and the position of the keys were well placed relative to how frequently you used them (a large back-space key and an Apple-command key that were sized for easy access), and these things are virtually bomb-proof.

If you were a PC user at the time, you probably could have found a PC keyboard with similar click response and platform-appropriate key layout, but one of the things that always sucked about PC keyboards was the difference between Apple's ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) standard and the PC's use of either the PS2 or serial interface to connect keyboard and mouse to the computer. What this meant in practice was that, if you used a Mac, you could daisy-chain your mouse off of your keyboard and have one long cord going to the computer instead of two long cords getting tangled up on your desk. USB has solved this issue (as has the battery-munching Bluetooth interface).

With the first generation iMacs, it seemed like fashion started to replace functionality. The USB keyboards that went with them were nice and the clear plastic was cool, but the feel started to change. My next encounter with an Apple-made keyboard came with the G4 desktop system that I was working with in the 2003 timeframe. Typing on that was keyboard was annoyingly poor. I would frequently get duplicate letters when the keyboard would stick or the signalling seemed off. The feel was terrible too -- no clicks, poor key return, you name it. I vowed that the next time that I bought a keyboard, I would invest an hour or two in comparing the different versions available in the store to find one that felt right.

In 2005, I was updating my system and, as noted, I went to the store to research the available options. I happened to come across the Matias Tactile Pro. Here was a keyboard that was designed for Mac publishing professionals -- based on the Apple Extended Keyboard II. Supposedly, it used the same key switches, so the keys were springy and made a nice click when you tapped them. The key layout and sizes were similar -- well thought out and sized to match typical typing -- large backspace/delete key, larger Apple command key, large return key. They also integrated a USB hub into the keyboard, so you could connect a USB mouse to either side of the keyboard (the keyboard cable connected underneath the middle of the keyboard. And finally, to add to this awesome keyboard, they included all of the "optional characters" on the keys of the keyboard. If you're not familiar with the Mac, Apple's standard key set includes many type characters that you can generate using the combination of shift, option, or shift-option -- things like the copyright symbol or the trademark symbol. In contrast to the PC where you would need to use a Symbol font (or special functionality within the application), these are all accessible across the Mac platform, but there are so many that it's hard to remember all of them. In the past, the way to see what key combination created them was to use an application called "Keycaps" that would show you what they were. In short, this was a convenient feature, one of those -- why didn't somebody else do that kinds of things. Let's just bullet those features to make them stand out more:
  • Mechanical key switches for maximum comfort and speed
  • Special characters and symbols on the keys
  • Integrated 2-port USB hub -- one port on each side (left or right handed mouse)
Anyway, the Matias Tactile Pro keyboard rocked. Other than driving the other people in my office crazy (they believed that I must be angrily pounding away on my keyboard -- it's funny how people have forgotten the noise that keyboards used to make), I had zero complaints. I thought about buying another one for home -- but at about $120, I just wasn't ready to drop that kind of money. Instead, I would carry my Matias Tactile Pro keyboard home on nights when I expected to type a lot.

As luck would have it, one night while carrying it home, I dropped it in the parking lot and the plastic enclosure broke. It was just the corner, so I thought I might be able to continue using it, but with the top part of the plastic on there, it started to pinch the space bar. So I took the top part of the keyboard case off, and presto, it still works just fine. The biggest problem that it has right now is that the plastic connectors for the USB hub will sometimes slip off when I carry it back and forth from the office (and the power button has fallen off and is lost somewhere on my desk).

These are the kinds of things that prompt you to start looking for an update -- and off I went to the Matias site to make sure that the still made my keyboard. Incidentally, in another great piece of marketing, Matias included the name and web address stenciled on the space bar. It turns out that the Matias Tactile Pro keyboard has been replaced -- upgraded to the Matias Tactile Pro 2.0. This is what this post is really about.

Product Marketing Gone Wrong - How do you add features and screw up a great product?
With all of the wonderful things that I have described about the Tactile Pro, you might wonder what you could do to update and improve this keyboard. This question, and mysteries of product marketing gone wrong are really at the heart of this post. First, in reading various published comments and reviews on the web, the biggest complaints tended to be an issue where, when some people where typing really fast, certain key combinations triggered incorrect entries. Other than that, the only commonly published complaint was that the see-through-plastic/white combination seemed to show things like food crumbs, etc. So what did Matias change / Fix for gen 2? Here's a high-level list:
  • Added support for USB 2.0
  • Expanded support for PCs with a PC-focused silver/black version
These seem reasonable, but there are caveats and the caveats are what this is really all about.

Take a quick read between the lines and you'll see that the added support for USB 2.0 comes at a HUGE price.
  • There is only 1 USB 2.0 port. It's located on the right side of the keyboard.
  • The previous USB port on the left side is now occupied by the cable that connects the keyboard to the system -- the old cable used to connect through the bottom middle of the keyboard.
  • The cable requires two USB plugs to connect (FYI, Mac laptops like the Macbook Pro only have 2 USB ports available on the system).
As for the PC version, they added an "Optimizer key" that maps to many of the PC commands that you would use. This key, as it turns out, is basically the shift-lock key. I'm not sure if that was the driving reason behind this change, but here's another interesting shift -- they removed the LED on the Caps Lock key for the Mac version. Basically, there is no longer a keyboard-based feedback mechanism to tell you that you have the Caps lock on -- not a big deal if your typing in a document, but potentially a problem if you're having trouble logging into a system using that case-sensitive password.

So as a marketer, the question that you have to ask is, what was driving these decisions to make these core modifications to the product? Is this supposed to be innovation? Who was the customer that fit their target profile? Where, during the design and planning process, did the analysis of how these decisions might impact their existing customer base get processed? Do they really know their customer base or are the just "adding features"? How do you take and award-winning design and make so many people in your customer base angry?

If you think that it's just me, Google the Tactile Pro. You'll find a handful of posts and comments posted on consumer sights. All of them underscore the shortsightedness of the updated design. This is another challenge with the Passion of the Niche -- here are people who are passionate enough about their computer keyboard to have written full web posts on the topic.

As for me, rather than purchasing an updated version of the product, I'm still using my old Matias Tactile Pro. Sure the plastic has exploded and it looks like Frankenstein's keyboard, but it still works well. Meanwhile, on their web site, the Matias folks say that they have obsoleted the 2.0 version and are working on version 3.0, expected to be available in spring 2009. It will be interesting to see how that one unfolds and whether they are able to reconnect with their customers.

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