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The Truth About Physical Keyboards

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.

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