As I spent a little hands-on time with an iPad at Apple’s event yesterday morning, jabbing away at the on-screen keyboard felt oddly familiar. It wasn’t a familial similarity to the iPhone keyboard–the fact that the iPad’s keyboard is so much larger gives it a completely different personality. But my fingers seemed to be telling me that they’d had a similar experience before.
This morning it dawned on me: The iPad keyboard feels a lot like the one on the first computer I ever bought with my own money, the Atari 400.
The Atari’s famously bad keyboard just barely counted as a physical one: In one of the cheesiest cost-cutting decisions ever made by a PC manufacturer, there were no individual keys. Instead, the whole thing was molded out of one piece of flat plastic, so the “keys” had no travel. The only real evidence of physicality were the ridges around each key, which didn’t do much to make the typing experience better.
I got my Atari 400 in 1982 and used it a lot–especially to write programs in BASIC, which involves plenty of typing. I haven’t used it since the mid-1980s. But the tactile experience of smacking my fingertips down on a surface with no give to it was stuck somewhere in the back of my brain, and using the iPod unlocked it in a strangely Proustian fashion.
At the time I owned the Atari, I was defensive about that keyboard. I don’t think I maintained that it was good, but I did get pretty proficient on it. I could see myself getting similarly proficient on the iPad keyboard. And the iPad’s version has one gigantic advantage: built-in autocorrecting that should fix a sizable percentage of typing errors on the fly.
Doing a little typing on the iPad was enough to convince me that it might not be as lousy an experience as I’d anticipated. But I want to do real writing on it. Safe bet: When I get my hands on an iPad for real-world testing, I’m going to blog on it and see what it’s like to type 300 or 600 or 2000 words on the thing. If it’s no worse than writing 16KB of BASIC on an Atari 400, I’ll be relieved…