Every year at the large tradeshows we attend, trends in the industry emerge, and without a doubt, the dominant innovation in keyboards these days is optical switches. Although they are currently on few shipping products, some keyboard makers are planning to release optical switches on devices in the near future, and many more are exploring the idea.
In The Offing
There are presently only two companies--Adomax and A4tech--that are definitely making optical switches. Neither Cherry nor Kailh is currently pursuing optical switch technology. Gateron is at least experimenting with optical switch technology--we saw a prototype keyboard with Gateron optical switches at Tesoro’s suite at Computex--but we have been unable to substantiate anything further with Gateron (or Tesoro).
To my knowledge, the A4tech Light Strike “LK” switches are presently available only in the company’s own Bloody line of gaming keyboards, but that may change soon. Instead of making its own retail keyboard(s), Adomax is actively working to get its Flaretech switches onto other companies’ keyboards.
One of the more promising upcoming optical switch keyboards is the Wooting One (Flaretech switches), which we’ve written about extensively. Ducky, maker of the popular Ducky Shine keyboards, has also publicly shown that it’s planning to use Flaretech optical switches on a keyboard soon. BenQ is planning a keyboard in its Zowie line that will have optical switches, although the company would not divulge any further details.
It’s not just a miscellany of keyboard makers looking into optical switches, either. Sources with knowledge of the situation tell me that major keyboard makers including Corsair, Razer, Cooler Master and SteelSeries have all been investigating optical switch technology.
According to one source, both Corsair and Razer are actually in “phase two” of discussions with A4tech about using its LK switches. Another source indicated that Adomax (Flaretech switches) had been in talks with Razer, but they couldn’t agree on sufficient terms, so it’s likely that potential partnership has fizzled.
Razer has declined to comment. Corsair, Cooler Master and SteelSeries all demurred on official responses, but representatives from each told me that their respective companies have no plans for an optical switch keyboard at this time but are always investigating possible emerging technologies. Specifically, Cooler Master said that it is looking into optical switches but stated nothing further.
We must be careful, though, not to assume too much here. Aside from the few reported deals that are in the works, the fact that these major players are looking into optical switch technology means only that they’re doing their homework on emerging technologies that are germane to their business. They would be foolish not to investigate optical switch technology, even if they eventually decide not to implement it.
Market Forces At Work
To be clear, even if all the major keyboard makers decided to roll out keyboards equipped with optical switches instead of standard mechanical ones, users may notice little change in keyboard performance at first. The idea of increased speed is a sexy marketing tidbit, but in real life, most users won’t be fragging n00bs much more effectively than they already are. The analog input feature that Wooting is developing is an exciting potentiality, but that will be available only with Adomax’s Flaretech switches, not A4tech’s LK switches.
That, however, brings up the more important possible development in the switch market: The current dominant switchmakers could see their market share drop.
Cherry and Kailh are, of course, the two titans of the switch market. There are numerous others--including TTC, Greetech, Matias, Gateron, Topre, and so on--but both Cherry and Kailh are presently completely dominant in terms of sheer volume and market penetration.
But what if users suddenly begin clamoring for optical switches?
Make no mistake, although there are plenty of sharp product managers developing keyboards, market demands shape many product decisions. For example, we’ve had more than one product manager tell us that they chose Cherry switches for their keyboard not because they’re necessarily better or worse than any other, but because they’re simply more popular with consumers.
The logical conclusion, then, is that if consumers want optical switches, they will get them. And presently, the only two companies that are definitely making them are Adomax and A4tech. (As we’ve mentioned, Gateron may be experimenting with them, as well. We have been unable to reach the company for comment on the matter, though.) That means if demand spikes, Cherry and Kailh could be in for some difficult market challenges.
The next six months to a year should be telling, as it appears that the biggest keyboard makers in the world are looking into optical switch technology, and the biggest switch makers in the world are not.