Typing stuff on a physical keyboard with a weird keymap

January 27, 2015

This is a small project I recently released on github and Google Play. It aims at catering to the needs of people using the bépo layout, and wanting to use it for physical keyboards on Android.

Bépo is a french dvorak-like keyboard layout; it was designed by a community of enthousiasts, and is now included in Xorg. Its platform support is pretty good on the three main PC OSes, but limited on Android. For physical keyboards, there's a paid app that supports the bépo layout (as part of whole package of other keymaps) but it requires you to use it as your input method, whereas since Android 4.1 it's possible to have custom keyboard layouts exported by apps and managed by the system.

It's this facility that is used by bepo-android (or Bépo clavier externe): a simple intent property you declare in your manifest to tell the system that you're exporting keyboard layouts, with which you point to an xml file listing all your keyboard layouts, each pointing to a single .kcm file. bepo-android is currently exporting a single layout file, generated for bépo.

The bépo project has this wonderful tool called the configGenerator that allows regenerating the whole set of keymap files, images of the layout, configuration files for all platforms in a single command; which runs a few shell, perl and python scripts. This allowed the project to move fast when making modifications, but is today used mostly by enthousiasts creating their own variants (I used to have such a variant, but now I just use the official one). I created such a script for the android platform. So the script generates the necessary .kcm file, and could be re-run with your own customized bépo layout as source. An alternative possible use would be to use its ability to read xkb files to export Xorg keymaps to Android. This would probably need adaptation to add support for more exotic languages and characters.

Android has this two-tier keyboard management system. First, there is the key layout, which maps evdev keycodes into key names. The key names currently match the ones Linux's input.h. There's a default key layout you can use as a base, Generic.kl. Then there's the key character map, that will tell the system which unicode character to input when you press a given key. This is at least two order of magnitudes simpler than Xorg's system; although xkb is also much more powerful.

As you might have guessed, the file generated for this project is a key character map, that also uses the undocumented "map key" directive, to remap a part of the key layout to make sure it's not changing under us; for instance Archos has a different key layout for its keyboards than the default.

One of the tradeoff I had to make was to have the underlying key layout a QWERTY, that then generated bépo characters. This decision was due to the fact that we cannot attribute key names to all keys: ÉÀÈÊÇ, etc. don't have key labels (found in KeycodeLabels.h or InputEventLabels.h depending on your AOSP version), so you can't simply remap all keys in order to have a bépo key layout; you'd have holes in it. I therefore had to resort to using QWERTY as base, as it's the one in Generic.kl. I'm also secretly hoping it might help with badly-programmed games that have keyboard support, assume qwerty, and don't allow key remapping. If those exist on Android. (but they are legion on the web, which is very annoying).

The bépo key character map also maps the documented special diacritical dead keys; this is quite useful, but not as complete as xkb's many dead keys; and not nearly as powerful Xorg's Compose; so not all bépo dead and compose keys are supported.

This currently only works with devices having Android 4.1+, provided the manufacturer didn't botch the external keyboard support, as Asus did on my Fonepad 7 (K019), and as a user reported a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 to be. OEMs do that to allow synchronisation between the virtual and physical keyboard layout, but this is just wrong if it removes the user's ability to chose his own keymap.

I have yet to hear from other non-working devices; after a month or so, the app hasn't seen much traction (Google Play says there are less than 50 installs); so maybe in the niche that is bépo, there isn't much interest in typing stuff on Android. We could even wonder if people would ever do productive work on this platform. But that's a debate for another day.

At least I scratched my itch =)

Get Bépo clavier externe on Google Play.