By Harry McCracken | Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 10:58 pm
If 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?