Physical keyboards: are we in the end days?

Posted on by Mike Evans

Typing-WomanWhen I got my first iPhone I really missed the physical keyboard of the Palm Treo. For a long time I remained envious of BlackBerry fans with their much-admired physical keyboard. Now, however, I'm sold on Apple's virtual keyboard and I've built up my speed and accuracy through diligent use. When the landscape option arrived in OS 3.0 I thought this would be icing on the cake; but I find the larger landscape keyboard less accurate than the smaller, standard portrait version. Maybe it's just me, but I now seldom turn the phone on its side to enjoy landscape composition. What I do especially like is the intelligence of the iPhone/Touch keyboard software, its ability to anticipate a word and offer it for acceptance (by a logical press of the spacebar). There are quirks, of course. When I type the word "reading" my iPhone diligently checks my contacts list and finds the town of Reading, so insists on capitalising reading. I can live with this; at least it's thinking.

It comes as little surprise therefore that some industry pundits are forecasting the end of physical keyboards. See this TechCrunch article for more background. Virtual keyboards are getting more intelligent by the day; and it is becoming possible to build in tactile feedback to simulate the buttons of an old-fashioned mechanical keyboard. I now see little virtue in the traditional smartphone split face--half screen, half keyboard. The screen compromise is so great as to negate any perceived advantage of having a "proper" keyboard. The iPhone interface, with the full screen, intelligent virtual keyboard and finger-sized options, is just so right that it floors the competition.

All of this brings me to the soon-to-be-announced Apple tablet. This fabled device is so near production (in the "next decade" which starts on January 1) that it's now down to guessing the specification rather than the existence of the device. The more recent rumours centre on a 10in screen (anything from 9.6 to 10.6in) and a modified iPhone operating system. This is a bit disappointing for me, since I'd rather hoped for a version of OS X in order to use Mac apps. But I can see the logic in using the iPhone interface because it is designed for podgy digits rather than mouses and keyboards. I'm not a developer, but I wonder how much work there is in modifying iPhone apps to the larger screen. It's probably not insurmountable and will open up a new income stream to make it more than worthwhile.

If our imaginings of a single flat-screen tablet are accurate, I don't see it being any more useful than the iPhone for productivity applications because of the conflict between ideal viewing angle and ideal typing angle. You hold the iPhone to type, you can't do that with a tablet and would have to lay it on the table and that's difficult for viewing the screen. I can see the advantages for video apps and games, of course. As TechCrunch point out, the clamshell design of the modern laptop is probably the ideal compromise between viewable screen and typeable keyboard. They raise the interesting possibility of a future laptop (or tablet device) with two screens--one doubling as a virtual keyboard. Now I find this concept very attractive and could well imagine it being successful. With the flat screen used for keyboard and functions, customisable according to application, and the angled screen used for viewing, we would have a compelling product. Maybe the days of the physical keyboard are indeed numbered. 

Side type Sad, in a way, since I've always been a keyboard person and learned my craft on ancient mechanical typewriters. I have a degree in the use of carbon paper and Tippex, but in many ways I'm ready for the change to virtuality. In all this, though, it's remarkable that the well-tried QWERTY layout has survived, despite so many efforts to think of a better way. From the Remingtons of the 19th century through to the iPhones of the 21st, all share this common layout. Having tried various ABC-layout virtual keyboards, I conclude that QWERTY has more logic for word composition, particularly in English, and we are probably stuck with it. Perhaps the ABC will soon become become the QWE.

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