Recently, a legal feud erupted between Massdrop and Input Club over a new set of mechanical keyboard switches. As the dust (maybe) settles and both parties move forward, the kerfuffle may actually result in three new sets of switches.
Halo Switches, We Hardly Knew Ye
The switches at the center of the legal dispute are the two tactile Halo switches, the Halo True and Halo Clear. They were designed by Input Club and built in collaboration with Massdrop. The latter company paid for the tooling and secured an exclusivity arrangement for distribution. Input Club asked for, and was granted, a license-back deal that would allow it to sell the switches directly to end users.
However, a disagreement erupted when Input Club launched a Kickstarter campaign for its Whitefox keyboard and offered Halo switches as a configuration option. Massdrop viewed that as a violation of their agreement, Input Club disagreed, and so began months of legal wrangling.
Hako Switches Are Born
When we last covered this story, things were still in legal limbo, and it seemed that a lawsuit was forthcoming. We knew that Input Club was likely going to, at the very least, build a new set of switches. With the sudden announcement of the company’s Hako switches, that plan has come to fruition.
In addition to the obvious nod to the Halo name (note that “k” is the neighbor of “l” on the keyboard), what’s notable about the new switches is that Input Club went with a variation on Kaihua’s new Box switch design rather than another Cherry-style switch.
There are obvious questions here. Why is Input Club making new switches already? First, there’s obviously some value for Input Club in having more switch variations in its stable. Regardless of the existence (or not) of the Halo switches, the Hako line is a quite a different design. Thus, the group may have been planning to release them all along.
Because Kaihua is involved in all of this--all of the tooling lives inside of Kaihua manufacturing facilities, regardless who “owns” it--it was not a stretch for Input Club to keep working with the switch giant, especially because the Hako switch owes so much to the Kaihl Box design.
The design similarities and that pre-existing relationship certainly also sped up the process of getting the tooling set for the new switches.
A New Old Switch
Input Club representative Andrew Lekashman told Tom’s Hardware that although the group believes that the Hako switch offers lots of advantages--that they’re self-cleaning, last a long time, are more tactile than many other switches, have a plastic-on-plastic actuation, and are still Cherry MX-cap compatible--it may yet release a (new) Cherry-style switch as well.
This may seem to be a surprising move; Input Club already designing and (with Massdrop’s help) built the two Halo switches. If all that stands between it and the freedom to use those designs is a bit of legalese, why go to all the trouble of manufacturing a whole new switch that’s more or less identical?
The answer mostly boils down to cost, surprisingly. “At some point in the future, we will sort this [legal issue] out, but for now, the best path forward is to spend time and money on keyboards and keyswitches and not court and legal fees,” said Lekashman. He pointed out that it could cost $60,000 or more to fight the legal battle, but just $30,000 to pay for new tooling. And because Input Club is the designer of the Halo switches, that fresh tooling is all the group needs to clone them
It wouldn’t be difficult. Remember, all of this is Kaihua machinery; there’s no manufacturing-related reason why there couldn’t be two identical sets of tooling in a Kaihua facility, one owned by Massdrop and the other owned by Input Club, that can produce identical switches. All of the assembly lines, we’re told, are automated, so there’s not even any variation due to human intervention.
However, Lekashman said that it’s highly unlikely Input Club will clone the Halo switches, even though it could. Instead, the group would work on a sort of “Halo mark 2” that would have some improvements over the original. (It’s also possible that cloning the switches, even with freshly paid-for tooling, could be legally tenuous.)
Based on what we know, there’s a 50/50 chance that Input Club will make a version of the Halo switches. It if does, though, the group may return to some of the “Halo” nomenclature. Or, to avoid confusion, it may use a different name.
What’s In a Name?
It’s unclear whether or not Massdrop will pursue the manufacture of the original Halo switches, but we would be surprised if it didn’t. The company declined to comment for this article, so we can only speculate. However, we know that it owns (and paid good money for) the tooling to make the Halo switches, and the company is involved in numerous keyboard and keyboard-related group buys. A logical next step would be manufacturing its own switches for some of those projects.
One wrinkle is that Input Club owns the trademark to “Halo.” Thus, Massdrop would use the name at the risk of incurring a legal challenge from Input Club, so it would probably be wise to change the name.
That is, it could make Halo switches as we know them now but with a different moniker. For our purposes, let’s call them “Schmalo” switches.
Given all the above, it’s entirely likely that from the fog of this one legal dispute will emerge three new sets of switches:
|Switch Name||Notes||Produced by||Manufactured by|
|Schmalo TrueSchmalo Clear||Identical to the original Halo True and Clear||Massdrop||Kaihua|
|Not-Halo TrueNot-Halo Clear||Some modifications to the original Halo True and Clear||Input Club||Kaihua|
|Hako TrueHako Clear||Based on the Kaihua Box design||Input Club||Kaihua|
To be clear, there’s no guarantee of anything other than the new Hako switches. As we noted, Massdrop has no further comment on anything related to the matter, and Input Club isn’t certain whether or not it will make a "version two" of the Halo switches on its own.
What we do know is that this Halo business has become a lemon of a situation, and there are some ways to make lemonade from it.