BHQC: Are Physical Keyboards Dead?

The Brutally Honest Question Corner is our continuing series on disputed or hot-button topics in the mobile industry.

Recently, I was at a bar catching up with some old friends. All of us being under the age of 40, we had our smartphones splayed out around us, forming a perimeter of occasionally blinking technology that simultaneously isolated us from the world of the bar and connected us with the world outside its doors.

At some point in the evening, I noticed that most of my friends were carrying Blackberries. Initially I attributed this to their occupation. Most of these people were bankers and lawyers- not quite one-percenters, but close. I figured the attachment to RIM’s increasingly irrelevant platform was just a symptom of their conservative corporate overlords. But when I asked them when they were upgrading and to what platform (leading and inflammatory questions being permitted in informal bar interviews), one of my Bold-toting friends replied, “I’m not.” When I asked him why, he answered: “I can’t give up a physical keyboard.”

For some reason, probably the Sam Adams, I decided to debate this point. Now, there’s no shortage of non-RIM devices out there with passable -even excellent- physical keyboards, but it’s tough to deny that Blackberry remains the gold standard. Obviously, extolling the virtues of midrange Android devices, increasingly the only smartphones to feature physical keys, wasn’t getting me far. So I asked why virtual keyboards weren’t acceptable. The prevailing answer: autocorrect.

“I send hundreds of emails a day,” said one of my friends, whom I’ll call John because that’s his name, “and they’re all full of acronyms that we use in-house. Autocorrect would drive me crazy.”

He makes a good point: websites like DamnYouAutoCorrect exist for this very reason. And while it’s an excellent hilarity factory, anyone can see why autocorrect’s foibles would be unwelcome in the kind of boardrooms and courtrooms and … executive bathrooms these guys call home.

Executive Bathroom Island

No room for typos when you get to this level, folks.

“Okay, but you can turn autocorrect off,” I replied.

“But then I can’t tell when I’ve made a mistake,” came John’s rebuttal.

“How’s that?”

“Because I can’t feel it. There’s no tactile response. When I mess up on my Bold, it feels wrong in my fingers.”

Okay yes: by this time, everyone within earshot of this conversation wanted to shoot himself (or at least find a less-boring bar), but this rare opportunity to hang out with a cadre of unapologetic Blackberry users was giving me valuable insight. I was beginning to understand the argument against virtual keyboards. Still, ever the contrarian, I pressed on:

“Do you think you’ll ever find a touchscreen keyboard you like?” I asked.

A beat. “No.”

That’s where John and I differ. And not just because he’s a staunch “stick with what works” conservative and I’m a future-loving “what’s new and how can I use it” liberal (I smell sitcom!). We differ because John doesn’t just think physical phone keyboards are superior; he thinks they have life left in them. And I don’t. I think they’re dead.

bloody keyboard

Dead, dead, dead.

One of the incredible things about mobile virtual keyboards is that they’ve only taken five years to graduate from an untrusted, mock-worthy gimmick to the dominant input method. It was 2007 when Steve Ballmer infamously remarked that the then-new iPhone wouldn’t appeal to business customers “because it doesn’t have a keyboard.” Five years later, the iPhone and its touchscreen ilk have flipped the corporate-purchased phone model on its head, with customer demand so high that companies have effectively been forced to support them.

Now, most would say this huge wave of adoption has happened in spite of the virtual keyboard tradeoff, not because of it. But the advances that helped make touchscreens acceptable will mature further, and the result will be a virtual keyboard that’s better than any of today’s physical ones. Here’s why.

Bless You Autocorrect

Spelling-correction and word-completion technology has come a long way in a short time, and it’s only going to get better. Already, most platforms support autocorrect libraries that users can modify to suit their own slang and shorthand. Sure, it’s a bit of a chore to set up at first, as it takes a while for your phone to “learn,” but it doesn’t take long before it starts suggesting acronyms you just started typing. As the technology develops, more advanced prediction and analysis will likely provide context-aware text suggestion. Your phone will know before you do that you want to end that text message with “JK OMG LOL ROFLCMSABUB!” That’s almost as exciting as it is creepy.

Thin Is (Still) In

Let’s just skip past the inevitable fat jokes, shall we? Thin phones are still highly desirable. In fact, HTC has recently discovered via focus groups that we consumers may value thinness even over battery life. I’m not sure the people in those focus groups fully considered what life is like when you’re forced to visit a power outlet between every tweet, but whatever: thin phones are still hot items. And it’s a lot easier to make a thin phone when you don’t have to worry about squeezing in the hardware that physical keyboards demand. All that deliciously springy, clicky action isn’t free, you know. Speaking of which …

Tactile Feedback

The first typewriters required the development of some pretty hardcore forearm muscles; you had to be a jackhammer operator just to to get all those levers and hammers to slap some ink on a piece of paper. Even the first computer keyboards featured some impressive key travel and “clickiness” – the noise I could clatter out on my old Commodore 64 often made my childhood home’s office sound like a printing press.

As technology advanced, though, such things began concerning us less. The notebook I’m typing this on has keys that feature travel of maybe an eighth of an inch. The feeling took some getting used to, but the benefit is in the physics: a shallower board means the vertical space the keys need to traverse is smaller, saving time. All those saved milliseconds add up to faster typing speed in the long run. Virtual keyboards are the ultimate expression of this time-saving; If you’ve ever seen someone flying through a text message on a virtual keyboard, you know what I mean.

fire keyboard

Couldn’t find a pic of blurry fingers on an iPhone keyboard, so … this!

VKBs are also, unfortunately, the ultimate expression of no tactility; after all, you’re typing on a piece of glass. But we’ve already found ways to preserve a bit of that benefit. Audio clicks on key presses communicate to the user that a tap has been received. Different OSes offer different sounds, with some even offering custom click customization. Haptic feedback -briefly buzzing the phone’s vibe motor with each keypress- started as a primitive, cumbersome gimmick, but more and more it’s being refined into a priceless feature. Specialized versions of haptics from companies like Motorola are even starting to provide localized physical feedback; use the buttons on an old ROKR E8 or a modern-day Droid RAZR to see what I mean. The tactile buzz seems to come from right under your thumb, even though the “buttons” are as flat as the rest of the display. And this is the kind of technology we’re working with today. Imagine what the future will bring.

So, just like the extendable antenna and T9 input and push-to-talk over cellular, the already-marginalized physical keyboard will soon find itself relegated to ever-more-niche applications, until finally fading out of existence entirely.

Could I be wrong? Actually, I kind of hope I am; if nothing else, it’ll make all that time I spent on webOS fan forums justifying physical keyboards worth it. And there’s something to be said for this last semblance of the machine world in our computing lives, something primitively satisfying about clacking away on buttons that move and click and spring and pop.

But I believe that even though haptic and audio feedback won’t be enough to fully replicate that feeling, such fakery will ultimately grow good enough to win the war. Virtual keyboards will still take over. After all, the mobile landscape is littered with the carcasses of once-common features, capabilities, and even whole platforms that were superior, but which ultimately fell victim to the relentless momentum of progress.

So savor those buttons, folks; they won’t be around much longer.


Bloody keyboard image source: OpenWalls

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA. Read more about Michael Fisher!