Drink coaster. Ice-scraper. Pooper-scooper. Remember all the inventive uses for free America Online disks? Just imagine all the ways an AOL keyboard could be put to work.
A New York start-up, RocketBoard.com, in which AOL holds a minority stake, will on April 3 begin providing free keyboards (plus $7.95 shipping and handling) to anyone who wants one; all you need is an e-mail address. The catch: three keys on that keyboard will link directly to A-O-L. Shiver.
No, this isn't an elaborate two-day late April Fools' joke aimed at riling up the tireless anti-AOL forces. It's an actual only-on-the-Net business model that's built around the premise that narrowing Web surfers' choices can make connecting to the Internet "fast, fun and easy." Sound familiar?
Here's how it works. First, be assured that you will find on the RocketBoard the same 26 letters of the Roman alphabet and numbers 0 through 9 that you'd expect to find on any keyboard. Alas, targeted marketing on the Net hasn't gotten so sophisticated that it has eliminated the need for typing functionality altogether.
What's different here are the 18 colorful keys lining the top of the keyboard, most of which have generic subject names like "travel" or "auction." Pressing one of them automatically logs you on to the Net and sends you to a list of RocketBoard.com partners in the given area, who will be paying bounties for sales made or customers acquired through these buttons.
Choose from the list of partners to further customize each category key and from then on you'll go directly to that site whenever you click on the button. If it seems a bit stifling to have to choose from among RocketBoard's partners, don't worry; there is one key, with the infantilizing name "My Key," that lets you create a link to any site on the Web. Here, RocketBoard won't hold your hand. You're on your own, little Web surfer, be brave and choose carefully!
Then, there are three keys whose destination have already been chosen for all of us. The "AOL," "AOL Instant Messenger" and "e-mail" keys whisk AOL users straight to those AOL services. But if your ISP happens to be something other than the mass-market, mainstream access provider, the first three hits to any of the keys will produce a page inviting you to -- guess what? -- become an AOL subscriber. If you choose not to submit to these marketing come-ons, at least the e-mail key can be changed to take you to your Web-based e-mail account, if it should happen to be one of RocketBoard.com's partners, of course.
It's easy to see how this branding of actual keys on your keyboard could be extended ad infinitum into marketers' nirvana. For instance, a Kozmo button could be pre-programmed to deliver, with a single click, a 16-ounce Coke and a Grab Bag of Nacho Cheesier Doritos or whatever your junk-food addiction might be. It's not just a keyboard, it's a personalized junk-food portal!
And AOL has, in fact, already gone down this ur-marketing path, with plans in the works for an all-AOL RocketBoard product to debut later this year, where fully 17 of the 18 special RocketBoard keys will be devoted to AOL; the travel key linking to the AOL travel section, the auction key linking to AOL's auctions, and so on.
All knee-jerk anti-AOL sentiments aside, the branding of individual keys on a keyboard is downright creepy. Sure, users can still venture to any site on the Web with a RocketBoard, just by typing in the URL. But when the computer keyboard itself becomes a "marketing and promotional tool," as the RocketBoard.com folks describe it, can it be long before the "free" pre-programmed mouse arrives, designed to click automatically to the paying sponsors sites? After all -- wouldn't it just be faster and easier that way?