Hey, I’ve Felt That Keyboard Before!

By  |  Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 9:32 am

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…


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9 Comments For This Post

  1. worrelc Says:

    I remember being a 10 year old having to copy lines of basic from those old early “Byte” magazines etc.. onto our Atari 400. It was torture. The games we programmed were cool thought! Anyone remember “safryland”?

  2. Justin Wahalchu Says:

    I think the big difference is in the amount of force it requires to make a keystroke. The Atari 400 sucked in that regard — you had to press fairly hard on a key for it to register. I’m sure it only takes a feathery tap to register a keystroke on the iPad.

    That’s not to say it’s any better, at least for me. I’ve been typing on real keyboards for 20 years now and I’m not sure how long it would take me to get used to 0 force feedback.

  3. Will Blake Says:

    This is a good example of why I: a)enjoy following your articles and other postings, and b) simultaneously grin and shake my fist as I attempt to develop my amateur site and its editorials!

    Drats! and go Harry!

  4. landondyer Says:

    I wrote a whole commercial game on that keyboard. I got pretty good at it, but it still sucked.

    I still have the emotional scars.

  5. windump Says:

    why fret over this keyboard design? It’s software, it’s almost less than nothing.
    This interface has already been solved: http://domino.watson.ibm.com/comm/research.nsf/pages/r.hci.innovation.html

    nobody seems to care. folks would rather play in qwerty land.

    Btw – good analogy to the atari. My first computer was the C64, that had a decent keyboard.

    How many slide-show photo frame manufacturers are kicking themselves right now? With some tweaks to their OS, they probably could support 50% of iPad functions. (not to drag iPad through the mud, but wouldn’t one of those picture frame companies have a patent on that concept?)

  6. Craig Buchek Says:

    Given the smooth surface, I think it would be more analogous to the Odyssey 2 membrane keyboard. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnavox_Odyssey2

  7. Benj Edwards Says:

    Maybe in 20 years we’ll have a touchscreen iPad whose screen/surface molds itself three-dimensionally into pressable keys. Now that would be cool.

  8. jon Says:

    I had both an Atari 800 (Great Keyboard) and the 400 with the membrane keyboard. With the 400, Atari was not attempting to save money, but rather offer a kid friendly computer with a “Bugger, and Jelly compatible” keyboard.

  9. jamie dalgetty Says:

    leaving the bb for the iphone is kinda the same thing… i don’t think i’ll ever get used to the touch screen keyboard over the satisfaction of real buttons…

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