FireFly PowerBook on Tap

5/8/2K: IBM had announced a laptop with a “night light” that illuminates the keyboard, making it easier to use in the dark. Rumors of a PowerBook with illuminated keys have been around for months – in fact, some rumor sites were noticeably disappointed when Pismo didn’t include illuminated keys.

The Rumor Mill

As anyone whose ever used a flashlight knows, lights use up batteries quickly. Apple, always thinking different, has been looking for the perfect way to make the keyboard glow in the dark.

They abandoned the idea of backlit or sidelit keys, although that was a driving force behind the switch to translucent keys with the Lombard “bronze keyboard” model introduced in 1999. But the lighting technology wasn’t ready yet.

Another dead end was radium, like on non-digital watches, compasses, and other night-glow items. The problem was twofold. First, these items need to be “charged” by exposure to a bright light source. But the second argument was even more important: People are not attracted to radiation. To illuminate a keyboard with radium would have called for a whole lot more than the minuscule amounts used on old watches and compasses.

Back to the drawing board. Night-glow plastics, like those used in flying discs, shared the problem of needing to be exposed to light before they could be used – and the glow didn’t last long enough.

Apple negotiated to license the IndiGlo technology from Timex, but in the end decided that a bluish glow was not right for its computers. Blue symbolizes another computer company, one known for big iron, powerful servers, and Windows PCs.

In the end, Steve Jobs was inspired by the bioluminescence of the firefly. More precisely, it was the glowing sticks carried by trick-or-treaters that got his attention. After years of research, Apple R&D has discovered a way to create chemical-based backlighting for the keyboard using just the barest trickle of electricity to stimulate a reaction.

In fact, the process is so cost-effective and efficient, Apple is exploring its uses as a backlight for laptop displays. If this pans out, it could become a more profitable licensed technology than FireWire.

Expect to see FireFly technology in the next generation of PowerBook keyboards; it may be a year or more before we know if backlighting the display will work out.

 – Anne Onymus

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