LAS VEGAS, NV -- Much to our delight (and the delight of throngs of other media), when we walked into South Hall 1 of the Las Vegas Convention Center at CES 2018, the first thing we saw was a giant Razer keyboard. And by “giant,” we mean this:
That’s not an optical illusion. We first assumed it was just a big pile of plastic, but when we pushed the keys, they worked--they were, in fact, clicky switches, just enormous ones, mounted onto a Razer keyboard that was larger than an adult human. Right away we assumed it was outfitted with NovelKeys’ Big Switches; a nearby Razer rep confirmed as much.
Thinking that NovelKeys scored a high-profile win with one of the world’s largest peripherals companies at one of the industry’s largest tradeshows, we snapped a picture, tweeted it out, and were on our way.
Only later did we realize that Razer had not made public the fact that those were NovelKeys switches. We presumed that Razer was giving a hat tip to the enthusiast keyboard community by so prominently featuring the product of one of its members, but instead there was no mention, anywhere, of NovelKeys at all.
This raised questions; it seemed that Razer was showing bad form, and predictably, murmurings began. We spoke with both Razer and Michael Sickler of NovelKeys to understand what really happened.
As is often the case, the truth of the matter is less scintillating than any rumors. This is less a story of a big guy screwing a little guy and more a story about third parties and licenses and logistics.
Razer contracts a third party to put together the display and “swag” merchandise for events, and indeed that third party was responsible for this particular booth display. A Razer employee (or this third party company, it’s unclear which) spotted NovelKeys’ Big Switches in Kaihua’s booth at the Hong Kong Fair. The idea for a giant keyboard, or some similar spectacle, was born.
This is where it gets tedious: As Sickler told us, “Razer uses a company called Primax who places all their orders for them. Primax contacted Kailh and asked them if they could purchase the Big Switches. Kailh informed them that I, NovelKeys, had all the rights to the Big Switch since I had come up with the idea and financed the tooling costs.”
He said that Razer/Primax wanted to buy the switches directly from Kaihua because they were on a tight deadline for CES, but Kaihua made sure Sickler was involved in the process. Stickler couldn’t sell them directly by himself because of the way vendor approval deals are worked out, so after some communication back and forth, it was decided that Primax (representing Razer) would buy the switches directly from Kaihua (which effectively was representing NovelKeys), because Kaihua was already an approved vendor. (Apparently, the paperwork to add NovelKeys as an “approved vendor” would have taken weeks--which would not have left anyone enough time to actually build the giant keyboard before CES.) Kaihua and NovelKeys worked out the price, and then Kaihua paid NovelKeys its portion of the money from Razer/Primax.
In the end, then, there wasn’t enough time for Razer/Primax to source the Big Switches directly from NovelKeys, but all parties involved worked it out so that the money went to where and whom it was supposed to go.
NovelKeys also allowed Kaihua to change the stem color to green (the switches were giant “Razer Greens,” then). Kaihua made them and shipped them off, and then Razer/Primax built the beastly thing we saw at CES.
Sickler told us he was pleased at the end result, in any case: “The giant keyboard, or as Razer called it the ‘BFK,’ is an absolutely amazing work of art/technology. This is one of the things that I was hoping I could see my switches used in. It’s so amazing to see a TKL keyboard at that size.”
The one remaining issue, though, is why Razer didn’t feature NovelKeys at all. Razer got loads of credit for making the BFK, especially because the switches actually worked, and NovelKeys got no exposure at all. To hear Razer tell it, there was no conscious effort to exclude NovelKeys, and when we asked about it, we were told, “We hope people had fun with it, and it's great if the company that makes such novelty items wants to showcase it.” Reading between the lines, we think it’s likely that most people within Razer’s CES team knew little or nothing about the BFK or its source, other than perhaps the fact that it would be at the booth.
Even so, someone within Razer should have thought to feature NovelKeys at the booth, at least with some light signage around the BFK. But NovelKeys was paid, the proper permissions were acquired, and it sounds like it wasn’t a purposeful slight. NovelKeys also deserves some recognition for the Big Switches that were used in the BFK, though.