The Truth About Physical Keyboards

By  |  Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 10:58 pm

TypewriterIf you wanted to place a bet on tomorrow’s WWDC keynote news (which we’ll cover live) that was such a longshot that it would pay off spectacularly if you turned out to be right, it would make sense to put money down on the possibility that Apple will unveil an iPhone with a physical keyboard. It’s not just that Steve Jobs snarked at the very idea of “tiny plastic keys” when he first announced the iPhone. It’s also that the phone has sold so spectacularly without one. Whatever you think of the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard, it’s hard to make a case that it’s stood in the way of sales.

And yet smartphones with physical keyboards also remain popular–such as the Palm Pre, the most interesting iPhone rival so far–and there’s no sign that the iPhone’s massive popularity will lead anyone to declare real keyboards to be obsolete anytime soon.

I thought about this as I read John Gruber’s thoughts about the Palm Pre on Daring Fireball, in which he contends that the only people who are likely to opt for a Pre over an iPhone because of the physical keyboard are those who already own phones with QWERTY keyboards (such as BlackBerries). John’s take: Both real and virtual QWERTY keyboards are much better than trying to enter alphanumeric characters via a phone dialpad, and the iPhone’s keyboard is far from lousy. As usual, his rational is well-reasoned and clearly explained.

I do, however, think he’s selling the virtues of tiny plastic keys a little short. They’ve got at least four benefits, two of which are pretty obvious and two of which are less so.

1) Familiarity and lack of learning curve. The iPhone’s on-screen keys and autocorrection can be utterly befuddling when you first encounter them–my typing accuracy rate was maybe ten percent at first. It’s possible to learn to be reasonably accurate in reasonably little time. But any decent physical keyboard has an advantage at first.

2) Tactile feedback. There’s something about the human brain that likes a confirmation that a key has actually been pressed, which is why RIM came up with the offbeat BlackBerry Storm screen that presses down in its entirety when you type on its virtual keys. Oddly enough, though, I think that tactile feedback on phone keyboards is overrated. For one thing, there are plenty of phones with not-very-satisfactory physical keyboards that don’t always register a keypress even when you’ve received plenty of tactile feedback. And the iPhone’s touchscreen is so responsive that it’s practically impossible to touch it without a keypress registering. (Whether it’s the right keypress is another question–but it’s not like touchscreens of the past which sometimes didn’t notice you’d tapped them at all.)

3) Two-handed typing. Your mileage may vary on this one–especially if you’ve got smaller hands than I do–but I simply can’t type on an iPhone with both thumbs. (Clarification: I can, but fourteen out of fifteen characters are something other than what I intended.) I need the precision of a fingertip to reach any sort of adequate accuracy. This is not a fatal problem, since I can type pretty quickly by tapping with one finger at breakneck pace. But two-handed typing feels even faster, and I can do it on every physical keyboard I’ve ever encountered.

4) No resolution penalty. This might be the single biggest advantage of physical keyboards, but it’s one that gets little attention.  When the iPhone’s keyboard is on-screen–in either its portrait or landscape incarnations–it eats up a huge percentage of visible real estate, leaving little room to display whatever it is you’re typing. That’s why the iPhone will never be an ideal gadget for stuff like editing word processing and spreadsheets, and why even typing e-mails that are more than a couple of sentences long presents a challenge. By contrast, the Pre’s screen boasts the same resolution as the iPhone’s, but 100% of it remains available for displaying documents and other content at all times, since there’s no on-screen keyboard. I cheerfully admit that the percentage of smartphone buyers who want to tackle hardcore producvtivity tasks on their phones is probably quite small. But for them, a physical keyboard is still a major advantage.

Those are my conclusions, at least. I still like physical keyboards–enough that if Apple released an iPhone with a design something like that of Nokia’s N97, I’d upgrade in a heartbeat.

Of course, there are few things relating to technology as intensely personal as input, and input on mobile devices is the most personal of all. (I’ve spent the past decade mourning the loss of the Psion Series 5’s perfect keyboard–but it was just the perfect keyboard for me.) What’s your stance on tiny plastic keys?



12 Comments For This Post

  1. DTNick Says:

    I’ve grown so used to the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard (yes, I can type with both thumbs :P) that plastic smartphone keyboards seem tedious to use. Definitely a personal preference issue more than anything, though.

  2. Bill Grant Says:

    If there is one thing I miss on my iPhone, as a previous BlackBerry user) is a physical keyboard. That said, I really love how thin the iPhone is, so the size increase with the keyboard would be a negative.

    A happy medium for me would be a design that allows me to add on a keyboard which simply makes the device thicker, but I could leave that behind when I want to. I’d anticipate carrying the keyboard M-F and leaving it home Saturday and Sunday.

  3. Haslina Says:

    I’m a tiny girl with tiny fingers, and even I find it difficult to type on the iPhone’s screen. That said, the reasons that I wouldn’t switch to iPhone (as a current Nokia E71 user) aren’t really because of the touch screen. It’s a factor, but I’m more concerned about the lack of MMS capabilities, SMS forwarding abilities and the fact that I had the first gen iPod for which Mac refused to replace the earphone jack when it stopped working.

  4. Priit Says:

    Generic and small physical keyboard’s face a lot of problems outside english, 7-bit ascii world. Depending on the language, those disadvanages cannot be cured. Take my language for example: šžäöüõ. How do you type them using Pre for example?

  5. Rob Says:

    I just want to state first that I have a touch phone (HTC Mogul) that happens to be mostly touch, but does have a slide out keyboard. The one most important and overlooked feature of the cell phone is the physical keyboard. If you’re in an accident and are blinded either by blunt force, chemical, blood, or any other means how would you dial for help? Up until this point we had physical keys that most any texter would be able to navigate blindly. On screen keyboards leave you with a false sense of security in your ability to ‘know’ where or what you’re doing. I still think physical keyboards have their places in cell phones, smart/pocket pc, or otherwise. The core reason to have a cell phone is for emergencies. Most people forget that.

  6. Jan-Christoph Borchardt Says:

    I own the HTC Dream (G1) with physical keyboard and love it. Though Android firmware 1.5 »Cupcake« features a software keyboard, I rarely type with it, let alone long texts. It is just easier, more comfortable and most important: faster.

    Using internet services fairly often, I would not get along with an on-screen keyboard, but it is quite handy for short inputs like time and date – you don’t have to flip open the phone.

    Regarding tactile feedback; a little vibration for each character is just perfect. I am not sure anymore if the iPhone offers that, the G1 does.

    @ Priit: We have äöüß (german), the physical keyboard is localised.

  7. Dan Says:

    iPhone has not captured the minds and hearts (or more importantly, the needs) of business users, and this is one place where the Pre could make in-roads (another way of saying ‘steal share from Blackberry’, I suppose). As an iPhone user, I love the interface, make do with the keyboard, and still keep my old Palm TX synched up with Outlook as a backup, which is able maintain all meta Contact information, my Outlook categories and notes, etc., without having to use a 3rd party app or hack. In my opinion, if you handle the functionality/user needs well, the keyboard will be a secondary issue for most users, with the exception of our large-thumbed brethren, of course.

  8. watermonkey Says:

    I also have a t-mobile g1 with the android 1.5 update, and I’ve come to the conclusion that while the on screen keyboard is really great with tactile feedback via a small vibration and just really good useabillity(the iphones is great to). Nothing can replace a physical keyboard for me, its just so frekin easy to use, for anyone. I’ll never buy a phone without one. Just my opinion.

  9. Micah Says:

    You can bet now that iPhone 3.0 supports both Bluetooth and dock connected hardware, some enterprising third party will start to sell keyboards.

  10. Alex Says:

    I see this issue in 2 ways: Consumer and Business.

    People buy what they want. Some people like touch screens some don’t. People who cannot live without a particular feature (i.e. physical keyboard) will not consider such a device regardless of it’s other features. Most of the discussion I have seen on this issue can basically be summed up by saying, “I like it this way, so this way is the right way.” I’m all for consumer choice, but it seems like a given that if a person likes something a particular way that is what they will choose if give the opportunity.

    For the Business side:
    It does not make since for Apple to produce an iPhone with a physical keyboard because it would limit the places where such a phone could be sold. Apple has made it very clear that they want a world-wide market. From the business side this seems a much better decision, as a company, than what other companies are doing. Apple is essentially training their customers to expect a feature that benefits Apple to produce. Manufacturers that use physical keyboards in a single language are training their customers to expect something that, by design, limits the reach of the product.

    I personally think that touch screen keyboards have a very good chance to to replace physical keyboards as the primary input method for mobile devices. Companies like RIM and Palm should spend the time to determine which way works for their business model; Apple already has.

  11. Gazoobee Says:

    This is a very poorly written article. The main thrust of it is just biased even though it presents itself as being an objective overview of sorts.

    Specifically, the author mentions John Gruber’s take on the software/hardware keyboard issue and then proceeds to tell us that on two major points Gruber is wrong or not giving us the full story. The two “obvious” points (1 and 2 above), mentioned however, are completely at odds with Gruber’s argument, which this author has prefaced his points by saying he agrees with.

    Point 1 (that there is a learning curve) is true of all keyboards if you haven’t used them before and they are different to what you are used to. This is essentially what Gruber was saying when he said that hardware keyboards would only appeal to those that already use them. It seems the author assumes that his audience is already intimately familiar and admiring of the physical key type keyboard to begin with.

    Point 2 (that it’s un-natural somehow to not have physical keys) is pure balderdash and supposition. I don’t feel that way and I know thousands of others in the same situation. It’s classic “bad thinking” to assume that your own prejudices and preferences exist in the minds of others. To assume that because you can’t get your mind around something that it is un-natural is ridiculous. Gruber’s argument is again relevant here in that Gruber essentially argues (with more authority and more evidence to back it up), that software keyboards only *seem* un-natural to those that *already* prefer the keys.

    This I think is where the author really lives. He is an old-school type, perhaps a bit on the conservative side, who just doesn’t “get” the new keyboards. I can remember when the mouse came out and similar arguments were made by similar people who claimed the only “real” way to use a computer was the keyboard.

  12. dj_super_promo_remix Says:

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