Although there have been some strong opinions about the designs of the Das Keyboard X50Q and 5Q keyboards themselves, the new Das Q cloud-based software they use has been a larger point of contention for many keyboard enthusiasts. I spoke with Das Keyboard’s founder, Daniel Guermeur, about the issues around the Q software and the recent launch of the X50Q and 5Q keyboards.
The complaints people have lobbed at Das Keyboard over this software are not uniform. Some of them are objectively legitimate, such as the fact that the promised Mac and Linux support simply wasn’t ready for the launch. Others are more subjective, such as concerns about the cloud-connectedness and privacy, and/or cloud-connectedness and practicality. Still other folks simply find the software overly complex for a lot of users and are dismayed at the lack of macro and key assignment support.
This is not even to mention the backlash Das Keyboard received after it banned some users from its forums for creating open versions of the Mac and Linux software that DK had yet to complete. (The company did apologize and reinstated the users it had banned. That apology is now stickied to the top of the forum unless you manually dismiss it.)
Let’s unpack the above and see where it takes us.
The State of Das Q on Mac and Linux
The Mac and Linux software support that Das Keyboard had promised users back when it Kickstarted the Q family was not finished when the keyboards launched. Guermeur makes no bones about this fact. “We wanted to deliver cross-platform software, and we were late doing that,” he told me. There is no excuse for being late, and he doesn’t try to make any, other than to assert that he didn’t want to release a product that wasn’t polished. In other words, they had to choose between releasing crappy software or incomplete software. They chose the latter, with a plan to finish and release additional features when they were ready.
Many would concur with that wisdom–with the addendum that the best solution would have been to finish the software all the way in time for the launch.
Those promised features are coming, at least. The Mac software beta finally launched in early September 2018, and participants have been using it and submitting feedback. As of press time, the Linux beta isn’t ready. A Das Keyboard representative told me that the company is finalizing it, though, with an “imminent” launch.
Others would contend that DK failed a second time when it banned forum users who made open source versions of the software. Instead of embracing the community, the company’s reaction was to fight it. Guermeur understands that this was a mistake, and he made no excuses in his aforementioned stickied apology. He knows that those forum members were trying to help.
Even so, he maintains that fully open sourcing the Q software is not the way DK should or will go.
He did say, however, that they’ll be opening up parts of the software. “We’re going to open up the Command Center so people can create their own plug in, their own app,” he said. “You’ll be able to create a ‘Q app’ that will be generated within the software. We’re going to open source all apps we have, and people can clone them, and modify them.” DK is shooting for the CES timeframe (January 2019).
Commenters have pointed out, though, that if DK fully open sources Q software and grants low-level API access, code nerds could create more interesting things with it. There’s a further argument to be made that the software is too complex or ungainly for average users while lacking the granularity that more experienced software folks desire. Sometimes with these things you get a happy medium, but sometimes you’re in the fatal middle. DK may be in the latter category right now.
Here’s the Thing About the Open Source Thing…
There’s another possibility for why Das Keyboard is reticent to go full open source: The notifications roll in regardless whether you have a Q-series keyboard connected or not. I stumbled across this fact when I started getting notifications in stereo. I’d installed the Q software on two different PCs to double-check some tests, and the one that had no Q-series keyboard connected (it’s a laptop) was getting the same notifications as the one with the keyboard plugged in.
On the initial screen when the Q software launches, you’re supposed to pick a keyboard. The software correctly notified me that I had no compatible keyboards connected. I clicked through anyway, and sure enough, I was into the Dashboard. I was even able to interact with the notifications–dismiss them, open them in the Command Center, and so on. When I did so, the notifications disappeared from both systems. I tried it in reverse, by using the first system to dismiss notifications, and I got the same result.
This makes sense if you think about it. The software is connected to the cloud, after all, so any system that’s connected to the internet and running your Q software can get your notifications. You won’t get the benefit of a lit notification if you aren’t using a compatible keyboard from Das Keyboard, but everything else seems to work.
That’s not good news for DK, because it means that its software can be decoupled from its keyboard. If it owns both pieces, though, then it’s not such a big deal. But if the Q software was open sourced, that would mean that DK owns only the hardware piece. And if the software can be easily modified to work on other keyboards, then DK’s entire value proposition–cloud software and a device on which to see notifications–is entirely negated. It would basically mean that DK spent two years creating software that gave it no competitive advantage whatsoever.
Guermeur and I did not discuss that aspect of this situation in our interview, but it jibes with what he told me about DK’s goal with the Q software. He wants it to be a framework, or marketplace, upon which others innovate. But he knows that in order for the investment to pay off in any way, DK has to own that marketplace. Therefore, fully open sourcing Q software is off the table.
Why The Cloud?
I pressed Guermeur on his reasons for creating cloud-based software in the first place. There are many options for configuring your keyboard, including onboard controls and desktop-based software, but a cloud-based paradigm is the most “out there,” as it were.
To understand Das Keyboard’s reasoning, you have to dispense with your existing concept of what a keyboard is and what it’s for. “It’s a keyboard for the Internet of Things that can display the status of the Internet of Things on the keys. It’s a command center,” he said. He wanted to create a system whereby your keyboard actually does something for you other than enter characters on your screen.
In other words, he’s pushing for a paradigm change. “We want to make it so you can control any IoT device that has a public API,” he said. Part of the plan was to give users a way to move a lot of their IoT notifications from their phone to their keyboard as a matter of convenience. “People like me are at their desk all day long, typing on their keyboard,” Guermeur noted. “So the object they touch the most is their keyboard, not a phone.”
In that, he is correct about many users. And it’s true that having to pick up your phone to look at notifications and perform a quick action may be more disruptive to one’s physical workflow than seeing a light appear on your keyboard and having a small text window pop up on some desktop software.
On the other hand, IoT and mechanical keyboards seem a somewhat awkward marriage. Or at least, it’s a solution to a problem nobody had, necessarily. But Das Keyboard sees it as something that people didn’t even know they wanted, and it’s banking on users getting excited about it once they try it out.
Cloudy With A Chance Of…More Cloudiness
Accepting Das Keyboard’s vision of the mechanical keyboard as a cloud-connected control panel and notification center for IoT, there are still some points of contention around its implementation.
Anything connected to the cloud raises hackles around security, but DK is confident that Q software is as secure as it can be. The REST API underpins Q software; it’s what services like IFTTT and Zapier rely on for sending and receiving commands and messages. Guermeur said that the tokens (which are used by the Q software, IFTTT, and Zapier to authenticate the cloud applications) are encrypted, the internet connection itself is encrypted, and everything in their database is encrypted.
A representative told me that Das Keyboard’s database contains the user’s keyboard profiles and the notification data, and that the data is automatically deleted “after some time.” However, a large concern for some users is the fact that there is data of any kind that lives in the database for any length of time, and that if that database is hacked, that data may be decrypted. So there’s a secondary question of what exactly the software has access to, but that depends largely on how you configure your Signals. “The software only ‘sees’ the data that was configured to be displayed in the Q Signal center (in the Zapier or IFTTT Applet),” I was told. But using the example of a tweet, the representative said, “If you only select to be notified that there is a new tweet from someone, the content of the tweet will not be sent to the signal center (just the fact that there is a tweet from someone). If you select to be notified with the content of the tweet, then the content will be sent to the Signal Center.”
Of perhaps most concern, though, is keylogging, but Guermeur said that structurally it’s not possible with Q software. “If you want to create a keylogger, you have to ‘listen’ to the keys,” he said, asserting that the Q software doesn’t “listen” to any key except for the big Q button. Therefore, the software doesn’t know what the user has typed.
Even so, users are right to be wary of the potential security and privacy weaknesses and abuses that any cloud-connected service may have, and they would feel more comfortable with open software to dig into.
No But Really, It’s Still Not Done
For all the complexity and power of the Q software, you don’t have to use it for long to discover that it’s missing some big, crucial features. Namely, you can’t make any key assignments, and you can’t program macros.
The lack of those capabilities alone is enough to deter one from purchasing a Q-series keyboard, but the fact that DK went to the trouble of creating the Q software yet didn’t manage to include any features that users actually expect is especially disappointing. It’s like someone giving you a pony when all you really want is a pizza and a six-pack. Thanks for the pony I guess? I’m hungry and thirsty right now, though.
Fortunately, those features are still coming, per Guermeur. He didn’t give a timeline for when we can expect that to happen, but I infer that the CES timeframe is, quietly at least, a goal. I also picked up on the notion that Das Keyboard might view the Q software like Microsoft sees Windows 10–more of a journey than a destination. There’s some wisdom in that. But it can also be cover for delayed features.
All of that is to say that the Q software is still not feature-complete. You can program a glowing notification when someone likes your tweet, and you can turn on your smart lights with the press of a key, but you can’t make a macro. Yet.
Further reading: a full primer on how to use the Das Keyboard Q software. There’s also a full review of the X50Q keyboard.
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