When the newest interchangeable PC keyboard hits retailers next month, young gaming enthusiasts, not advertising, will fuel sales, predicts the head of the Canadian company making the devices.

“”They’ll be dragging their parents into the stores to buy it,”” says Nir Shafrir. CEO of Ideazon Inc.

But Shafrir, who used to head a Canadian computer distributor, says software companies and corporations are the main target of the product, called the Zboard.

“”Hopefully, companies will say ‘If you can do it for PhotoShop you can do it for my company.'”” Among the potential clients he says he’s talking to are major consulting companies who do corporate installations and software companies making customer relationship applications.

An executive with Tech Data Canada, which has an agreement in principle to be the exclusive Canadian distributor to the reseller and retail markets, agrees.

“”We think they’ve got a good business plan and they’re quite likely to be successful,”” said Greg Myers, Tech Data Canada’s vice-president of marketing. He called the product an innovative device that will help system builders differentiate their desktop PCs by making keyboards programmed for customers.

Shafrir said deals are also in the works with two U.S. distributors.

Shafrir made his remarks during a briefing this week as he unveiled the Zboard in advance of its debut in stores in the first week of March.

The base of the two-piece device looks like the bottom of a regular keyboard with rows of Lego-like plugs. The hot-swappable three-section foldable keyboards are dropped into the base. They can be bought in several versions with number keys already programmed to take advantage of shortcuts in applications such as Adobe PhotoShop, Microsoft Word and Excel and several games.

The Excel keyboard, for example, gives the user one-button access to page setup, header/footer, view commands and insert worksheet functions.

The idea is to keep users’ hands on the keyboard as much as possible and away from a mouse.

“”Right now so many applications are becoming so complex that unless you work on them 24 hours a day it’s hard to get full value from them,”” said Michael Dodgson, the company’s product manager.

At launch, the keyboards will only be for systems using Windows 98 and up. A Macintosh version is “”coming soon,”” said Shafrir.

The base will sell for $29.99 (all prices US) or $39.99 with a standard keyboard set for Windows and Internet Explorer. A keyboard for Microsoft Office will cost $19.99, while one for PhotoShop will cost $29.99.

Initially, the base will plug into PCs by a cord through a PS2 port. In May a USB version, which will include extra USB ports and an RF port for a wireless mouse, will be available.

A wireless keyboard, however, is doubtful, said Shafrir.

Keyboards dedicated for Ensemble Studios’ Age of Mythology and Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor and Microsoft Game Studios will also be initial releases. After that Shafrir says a special keyboard a month for a new game will be issued.

The idea for interchangeable keyboards came from several Israeli gamers, who raised development money during the Internet boom. Research and development is still done there, but the company is headquartered just north of Toronto.

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