How Google Will Do Away with the Space Bar

Every computer manufacturer is looking for ways to make its laptops smaller and more portable. Apple recently announced a new MacBook that saveds space by moving the keys on the keyboard together, and Dell got rid of the bezel on its newest XPS laptop. But a new patent awarded to Google today could lead the way for the most space-saving laptop yet, literally.

In the patent, the company outlined a design for a laptop that replaces the space bar with an extended trackpad. The patent suggests that part of the trackpad — separated by a line or a ridge — would serve as a space bar, and the rest would just be a regular trackpad. A set of sensors that sit under the trackpad would determine whether the user wants a space bar or a mouse: A single tap when the user has been typing will create a space, but a tap while the using the trackpad as a mouse will result in a mouse click.

According to the patent, Google’s logic for a virtual keyboard would be to create a smaller laptop computer, by pushing the trackpad up into the area that the space bar would have occupied. Lenovo’s current laptops already try to save a little space by pushing the trackpad a little closer to the keyboard, but it begs the question of why Google thinks it would be worth having just one virtual key. Presumably any number of keys could be turned into virtual keys, saving even more space on a laptop, though at that point, you could just use a tablet.

Though the reason for the redesign is ostensibly to produce smaller Chromebooks — Google’s line of laptops that operate predominantly in the cloud — the search giant posted that “prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patents.”

The patent was rejected twice over the last four years before being issued yesterday.

A representative for Google told Quartz that some patents it holds turn into products, and some don’t, and that “prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patents.” While there’s no guarantee that Google will turn this patent into something it includes in its Chromebook line of laptops, there would be — ahem — space for it.

According to the Patent Office’s digital paper trail system, Google’s space bar patent was actually rejected twice over the last four years before being approved. Perhaps the patent drafters had just been spacing on some of the details.

The technology that Google is proposing is a hybrid contraption that integrates the spacebar with the trackpad on a laptop, or on a tablet keyboard. Essentially, the trackpad would extend into the space where the spacebar would usually be, and “a top portion of the trackpad may be profiled to simulate a shape of the spacebar”.

One or more spring mechanisms may be placed under the region of the trackpad designed to function as the spacebar, and there could be a marked boundary that would delineate the spacebar portion from the rest of the trackpad.

The whole system could function the other way round, however. According to the patent, “an apparatus may include a keyboard including a spacebar, where the spacebar is configured to function as at least a portion of a trackpad”.

There’s something quite satisfying about thwacking the spacebar with your thumbs between each and every word, so for many this newly proposed system might prove frustrating. For computer manufacturers, however, it’s a right royal pain to try and squeeze a full-sized keyboard onto a laptop — and the wide-load spacebar is partly to blame.

Google doesn’t dabble a great deal in the world of consumer hardware, but its Chromebooks have become increasingly popular and the company will no doubt be looking for ways to strengthen its position in the increasingly fragile laptop market. Reducing the space that the keyboard and trackpad take up will result in a more compact, portable device for Google.