The iPad and the Rise of the Keyboard Case

The slow trickle that will become a flood has begun, as Keyboard cases for Apple’s (s aapl) iPad begin to appear here and there alongside more traditional offerings. The idea is simple: build a Bluetooth keyboard right into a case designed to protect and carry the iPad, and you’ve got yourself a total netbook replacement in a single, svelte package. It’s a watershed moment for the iPad, and for tablets in general.

The First Crop

The ClamCase was one of the first out of the gate with the concept, but they haven’t been able to make the leap to actually producing units yet. ClamCase’s creators have pegged Fall 2010 as the timeframe for actually shipping the hard-shell keyboard case, but no concrete details have emerged.

Two other more recent competitors look poised to beat them out the gate in terms of putting devices into the hands of actual consumers. The first is the Sena Keyboard Folio, a high-end leather option retailing for $149.99 ($129.99 if you pre-order), and the second is the very similar Kensington KeyFolio, which trades real leather for faux, and retails for much less at $99.99. Neither has actually come to market, but both are available for pre-order.

Why It’s Needed

I’m excited about the arrival of the keyboard case, as it means I’ll soon be able to actually use my iPad to do work on the train comfortably, without having to figure out some way to affix the iPad itself to the seat in front of me, since my stand and keyboard together won’t fit on the meal tray. That’s an incredibly specific situation, it’s true, but it’s representative of the more general problem of using the iPad on the go.

How The Keyboard Case is a Game Changer

If keyboard cases can solve this problem, it’ll have huge ramifications not only for the iPad itself, but for all tablet computing. Apple, with its staunch dedication to ever-simpler interfaces and less buttons, will never admit that a tablet with an integrated keyboard could be successful, but its competitors could take advantage if they can find a way to make such a design work. It’s a better idea than just throwing more and more 7-inch devices at the problem.

Apple would do best to go the route of scrapping the keyboard dock altogether (extremely limited, and terrible for use while in motion), and probably the official iPad case itself, too (I bought one at launch and literally haven’t touched it since I removed it after the first day). In the place of both accessories, it should offer a case that integrates a Bluetooth Mac keyboard, slightly redesigned to include the special function keys currently found on the keyboard dock.

Building the Accessory Bridge

The keyboard case may be treading softly as it comes to market, but make no mistake, this one’s got legs. At the very least, it’ll help bridge the gap between the notebook and the tablet for users who are having a hard time adjusting, which will significantly benefit the bottom line of Apple and other manufacturers getting into the market.

What do you think? Will the keyboard case actually make a big difference in the tablet game?

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