Dialing up a new phone interface

If you avoid using text-messaging and mobile e-mail functions on your cell phone because the keypad doesn’t lend itself to those tasks, Telus Mobility might have a solution in the offing.

The wireless carrier has invested in Digit Wireless, a Cambridge, Mass. company that has designed a new cell phone keypad meant to make data input easier.

Known as the “Fastap” keypad, this interface replaces the typical 12-button cell phone face with a 45-button array, which accounts for all of the alphanumeric combinations you’d create on the everyday QWERTY keyboard, said Digit’s CEO Dr. David Levy.

“The handsets themselves have gotten much better. [With] the combination of bigger screens and better software, it’s much easier to get text messages. The only problem that’s left is the keypad. It’s easily overlooked because we’re so used to it.”

He said Digit hasn’t tested Fastap among consumers yet, so he has no empirical data to suggest it’s better for text input than is the standard cell phone keypad. Still, he pointed out that the telephone keypad is half a century old, and designed for numerical combinations.

“If you’re inhibited by a technology that’s 50 years old and not designed for the application, I don’t think there should be any doubt in anybody’s mind that if you design something for the task, it will be better than something not designed for the task,” Levy said.

Telus Mobility aims to bring this data-oriented keypad to market later this year in a phone built by LG Electronics. At the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association’s (CTIA) Wireless 2004 conference it Atlanta last month, LG displayed one of its 5450 camera phones modified with Fastap keypad software and hardware, as a demonstration of what’s to come.

Telus Mobility put money into Digit via Telus Ventures, a corporate investment fund. The partnership with Digit and LG “is as natural a fit for us as the Fastap keyboard is on a mobile phone,” said Robert Blumenthal, Telus Mobility’s vice-president of products and services, in a statement.

A Telus Mobility spokesperson said the Fastap phone should hit the market in the fall at a price near $350 without a service contract.

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