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iPhone OS and external keyboards

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Q:

Any word on when we may see the first Bluetooth keyboards for the iPhone? Does the latest iPhone OS allow it?

- Paul

A:

Unfortunately, this is a slightly more complicated issue than one might expect. Although iPhone OS 3.0 introduced support for third-party applications to access the Dock Connector and Bluetooth hardware for the sake of communicating with third-party accessories, Apple did not provide any driver frameworks for any specific devices like keyboards or game controllers. In other words, although individual applications can access raw data from the Dock Connector and Bluetooth stack, they have to interpret this data and deal with it themselves.

What this essentially means is that each individual application must provide its own driver support for third-party accessories, including keyboards. This also means that there is no capability written into the OS for the use of external keyboards in any of the iPhone’s own built-in apps such as Mail or Safari. Further, the iPhone SDK does not allow third-party developers to write low-level device drivers or background processes to run on the iPhone—each app must run in its own “sandbox” and terminate when exited.

The result of this is that while it’s technically possible for a manufacturer to develop a Bluetooth keyboard for the iPhone, this keyboard would only work with third-party applications specifically designed to support that particular Bluetooth keyboard, and this support would have to be implemented on an application-by-application basis.

Theoretically, there is no reason why iPhone applications could not be written to take advantage of existing Bluetooth keyboards for other PDA and smartphone devices, except for the fact that each developer would have to code in their own keyboard driver into their own application, requiring much more effort than on other devices where these keyboards are supported by the operating system itself.

With all of these additional complications, it is unlikely that we will see mainstream accessory manufacturers develop iPhone keyboards until such time as Apple themselves provide actual keyboard support in the iPhone OS itself.

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