The issue is whether hardware keyboards on mobile phones are a good idea, and there’s a charming little prognosticate-off in progress. In this corner: John Gruber, who’s almost always right, saying (and I quote) “Normal people aren’t planning to do much typing on their new smartphone, and they’re probably right.” In the other corner, lots of people. Well, and me too.

[Update:] John revisits the question in Mobile Phone Keyboards.

Let me start by calling out to Lukas Mathis’ Virtual Keyboards, Real Keyboards, which points out that America and the rest of the world may offer meaningfully different contexts for this debate.

I’ve had an good Internet-connected phone since December. As of now, I will absolutely not consider using any such device that doesn’t include a physical keyboard.

Now, I’m not that weird. Sure enough I’m a geek, but given that, my tastes are pretty mainstream. On the face of it, you might think John is arguing that yes, I am weird; I found the Android/G1/HTC keyboard instantly addicting, but other people won’t.

That’s unfair: John’s argument is subtler: that Most People’s first Internet-connected mobile device will be an iPhone, whose on-screen keyboard is Good Enough For Most People, and thus they’ll never get hooked on a hardware keyboard. You should really go read his Palm Saturday in full, but I’ll quote anyhow:

That leaves the keyboard. I’ve been thinking about this ever since the keyboard-less iPhone launched, and it is my theory that a hardware keyboard is a significant selling point for only one group of customers: those who already own a phone with a hardware keyboard, and that group is a niche. A nice niche, but a niche nonetheless.

Here’s why. Most normal people have yet to buy their first smartphone. That’s why the stakes are so high — it’s a wide open market frontier, but it won’t remain that way for long. Normal people aren’t planning to do much typing on their new smartphones, and they’re probably right. Any smartphone QWERTY keyboard, software or hardware, is going to be better than what most people are used to, which is pecking things out on a phone with a 0-9 numeric keypad.

I dunno. I could draw parallels with Apple’s lengthy and deeply misguided conviction that one button on a mouse is enough. And maybe I am a niche. But you know, it’s a great big honking niche that includes a ton of Android and Blackberry and now Palm Pre users. And the iPhone users will be sitting next to them in departure lounges and staff meetings and coffee shops and watching them power-thumb their thoughts to their friends.

QWERTY Cool? · While driving around this weekend, the radio played me an ad from one of the mobile network operators, having fun with the word “QWERTY” and then putting the marketing hammer behind the word. Here’s the graphic:

“cool QWERTY phones” ad from Bell Mobility

All Things Considered · John, I’ll take that bet.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Graham Parks (Jun 08 2009, at 01:32)

"As of now, I will absolutely not consider using any such device that doesn’t include a physical keyboard"

But you haven't tried an iPhone for any length of time, have you?

Because your position seems to based around the assumption that typing on the iPhone is especially hard (realtive to a micro-keyboard), and while I'm not a huge fan (I don't currently own one), is not really something I'd agree with.

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From: Andy Boyko (Jun 08 2009, at 02:13)

I used a 'smart' phone with a keyboard for two years solid (Sprint PPC-6700 aka HTC Apache), and I mean used the hell out of it; I typed appalling volumes of text on that thing. When I switched to an iPhone 3G, I figured to regret giving up the convenience of the physical keyboard, in trade for an operating system that wasn't made out of pure spite. I didn't expect not to miss the keyboard in the slightest, but I surely don't. Weirdly, I'm now annoyed by the iPhone's landscape-mode wide keyboard (which is similar to the old HTC phone's scale) -- too much stretching and space wasted for no real gain, compared with the more compact portrait mode.

Before the Apache, I had sought out a weird Sony Clié (PalmOS) specifically because it sported a physical keyboard, which turned out to be exactly as idiosyncratic and overengineered as the rest of the device; the HTC was vastly more usable, even with the goony gridded layout (not staggered like the Clié and real keyboards). It turns out that tiny physical keyboards are hard to get right.

There are, of course, unavoidable physical hassles with sliding keyboards -- they stick and jam if the phone is at all junky, and . They also can't adapt to context, trading in keys that make sense for the given action. Neither of these is a small thing to me. And with decent autocorrection like the iPhone's, any accuracy penalty is offset.

[In full disclosure, I bought my iPhone 3G (on release day) the same week that I moved cross-country to Cupertino where I don't work on phones; nevertheless, my fingers, opinions, and grouchiness are my own, not my employer's.]

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From: dave (Jun 08 2009, at 02:43)

Another data point:

http://the.taoofmac.com/space/blog/2009/06/08/0940

"Physically, the device is great – small, light, apparently very resilient (if plasticky), and the only downer was the keyboard, which is noisy and rigid (this is the only thing where I think the Bold wins, with a smoother and quieter touch). Whereas I can tap away at great speed on the iPhone, on the [QWERTY-keyboarded] 8900 it takes serious effort to write either at speed or at length."

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From: Pavel (Jun 08 2009, at 06:19)

Just to offer a different perspective: I am also a geek, and I also would not consider having another non-smartphone in the future now that I've had a taste. However I do not miss a proper keyboard much - sure, it would be nice to have, but for me the touchscreen has been sufficient.

Perhaps this supports your theory that touchscreen typing is "good enough" for most? On the other hand, heavy messaging users will definitely want something with proper tactile feedback and I can see how that experience will not be duplicated anytime soon on a touch UI. Me - I'll happily trade that for a bigger screen.

Thanks for running such an interesting blog,

P.

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From: foljs (Jun 08 2009, at 06:25)

<b>And maybe I am a niche. But you know, it’s a great big honking niche that includes a ton of Android and Blackberry and now Palm Pre users.</b>

All ten of them?!

<b>And the iPhone users will be sitting next to them in departure lounges and staff meetings and coffee shops and watching them power-thumb their thoughts to their friends.</b>

That's so last century...

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From: Matt (Jun 08 2009, at 06:44)

Of course you think your tastes are mainstream. All power users, programmers, and geeks think everyone else thinks like them, has the same priorities, and prefers the same things. They are almost always horribly, horribly wrong. Hence most user interface designs.

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From: Zach (Jun 08 2009, at 08:18)

I've been using an iphone for almost a year now (since the release of the 3g.) I'm no stranger to phones and pdas and inputting text, and I have to say that the iphone has ended up being my favorite device for typing.

To put that statement in context, I've been poking away at chicklet keyboards in one form or another for going on 15 years now. Back in 1995 I carried an HP 100LX palmtop in my school notebook (and spent way too much time in class creating websites on it.) I had the first 2 models of Palm Pilot, the visor and a psion 5. I've carried all sorts of cell phones (still miss my timeport) and smart phones (I loved my treo 650.) Through various jobs I've had to carry various landscape slider phones and blackberries with the fixed keyboards, and on every device I can I've always had ssh installed so I can reattach my screen session and hop on irc. I've probably input more characters into a handheld device than most people will type in their lifetime.

The on-screen keyboard, as implemented on the iphone, wins over all primarily because it so easily morphs and changes shape. When I'm entering an email address the @ and the . are right there, I don't have to go looking for them. When I'm entering a URL the spacebar goes away to be replaced by ".", "/" and TLD-input buttons. When you enter the punctuation/numeric input screen, some characters, such as underscore, put you back to the alpha entry after you press them. Hitting space also puts you back at the alpha entry.

My statements only hold true when you're able to use autocorrect. When you are not (like when I ssh, or because it hasn't yet been developed for your language) the experience can go from amazing to frustrating and back in seconds. As a result I have found alternate ways to do almost everything I used to ssh for so that autocorrect is available. As this industry matures I imagine that will be less and less of a problem.

It takes a bit of time to untrain yourself to the desire for tactile feedback, but if you're able to do that you will find a very rewarding experience. My speed at inputting text to the iphone is just as fast as it was on my treo 650. For apps which make use of the landscape keyboard I might even be slightly faster. When you combine this with the auto-correction (and sometimes auto-complete) and the fact that apps in the iphone are generally designed so that I'm entering less text in the first place, I end up with an overall more rewarding experience.

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From: Timothy Collett (Jun 08 2009, at 08:27)

I have to say, I'm skeptical that people really are as surrounded as you think they are by people using Blackberries, Android phones, and Pres. You may be, but you *are* a geek, and like most of us, you probably tend to have other geeks around you.

Like it or not, your perceptions *are* coloured by your experience with physical-keyboard smartphones. I have never used a smartphone with a physical keyboard, and I can type pretty fast on my iPod touch...and I don't mind doing it, when my computer isn't available. Naturally I *prefer* typing on the full-sized physical keyboard on my MacBook Pro, but I very much doubt that, for someone like me, a physical tiny phone keyboard would be any better than a touchscreen tiny phone keyboard.

~ TC

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From: John H (Jun 08 2009, at 09:47)

I've found that using a touchscreen keyboard while walking is much harder and a lot slower than predictive text on a numeric keypad. It's also harder using the touchscreen while being bounced around on London's public transport systems. Unless I'm the only person who has this problem, that seems like a big potential win for smartphones with some sort of keyboard.

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From: Keith Fahlgren (Jun 08 2009, at 09:51)

I type a little bit faster (more than 20 WPM, which is enough) on my iPhone than my G1, but I've never really practiced typing on the G1.

What I think you're overlooking is the ability for soft-keyboards to become increasingly good at doing adaptive key sizing based on context. On the iPhone, I can type fast when I type sloppily, but only a portion of that comes from auto-correct: it also varies the size of the keys (or so I've read). That isn't an option on a physical keyboard (obviously).

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From: Paul Hoffman (Jun 08 2009, at 12:58)

Someone could ask the only folks that will count: the huge number of thumb-happy 13-to-35 year olds. Give them one of each and ask which they like more.

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From: Andrew (Jun 08 2009, at 14:28)

The iPhone keyboard takes a little training to get used to but I'm pretty proficient at it now (as is my wife). I wouldn't want to use it as my primary email client but it works just fine for short emails, texts, note taking etc. When taken in context of the entire iPhone package it's more than worth the tradeoff.

As always the market will decide whether a physical keyboard is a must-have or just a marketing feature like FM radios on iPod competitors. If Apple are wrong I have no doubt that they'll adjust just like they did with the single button mouse. You do know that you can enable a second button on Apple's mouse, right?

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From: Derek K. Miller (Jun 09 2009, at 00:43)

If Apple will allow the iPhone to connect to a third-party keyboard via the dock connector or Bluetooth, both camps can be happy. And as a bonus, there can be a variety of different keyboards for different purposes, even chording keyboards for the super-hardcore nerds.

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From: Phil (Jun 09 2009, at 10:21)

I'm holding out for a dvorak phone.

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From: Max Luebbe (Jun 09 2009, at 12:58)

I recently upgraded from a dinosaur phone that could do nothing more than call and text (yes with a dialpad) to a HTC Android G2 I picked up at Google I/O about two weeks ago.

The virtual keyboard on this thing is awful, and I find myself missing the simplicity and accuracy of my old dialpad (not that I don't absolutely love everything else on the phone though) as my wpm texting/typing has easily been cut at least in half.

Completely agree with you, hardware keyboard is definately a hugely compelling feature - hopefully we'll start seeing more innovation with input devices on mobile in general as well!

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From: Hugh (Jun 09 2009, at 23:12)

The software keyboard on my iPod Touch makes it easy to type in French characters with accents, graves, cedillas, and whatnot. And it took me just twenty seconds to add a Russian keyboard option.

There's an awful lot of people in the world who need more than ASCII, and the software keyboards have a huge advantage in manufacturing cost, if nothing else.

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From: Jeremy Cherfas (Jun 10 2009, at 08:06)

You don't seem to have asked what users might want a physical keyboard FOR. I'm happy with my iPod touch's virtual keyboard for little IMs and the like. However, if I had a solid full-sized keyboard, I could do real writing on the iPod and not have to carry even a netbook around with me.

I want a data input device that lets me touch type. I'll do all the formatting and tweaking on a different machine at a different time.

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From: dave (Jun 10 2009, at 08:06)

Two relevant comments from the Pre teardown:

http://www.ifixit.com/Teardown/Palm-Pre/809/1

On the quality of the Pre's hardware keyboard:

"Revealing the keyboard feels awkward and interrupts the smooth WebOS experience. Try before you buy, because this keyboard could be enough to deter picky users."

And this interesting factoid:

"The hardware keyboard and its associated sliding mechanism weighs 32 grams. That's nearly 25% of the weight of the phone!"

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From: Sanchith (Jun 15 2009, at 11:24)

No matter how many people swear by the touch technology of iPhone, I still prefer the QWERY keyboard of my blackberry. It was my first smartphone and I chose to go with the Blackberry than the iPhone, the most important deciding factor being the keyboard. Niche or not, I certainly don't get the tactile feedback of a physical keyboard on any touch screen keyboard. Accessibility is another issue that I'm surprise that no one has talked about. With a touch screen keyboard, how can a feedback be provided? Visual ofcourse, but that makes you put more effort on ensuring that you have indeed punched(or rather touched) the correct keys. Until touch technology is mature enough to meet my demands which the physical keyboard meets, I will stay with the latter.

I too will take my chances with the physical keyboard.

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From: brian ashe (Jun 17 2009, at 11:36)

I've had QWERTY phones for about 5 years--two Nokias (6800 and 6820), an iPhone (since 2 months after launch), and since last year, a BlackBerry from work. I'm OK with physical or soft keyboards but I much prefer the iPhone's soft keyboard. Since you're not pushing an actual key, you can type with a much lighter touch. Also, you don't have to angle your finger just right to apply pressure with nail or bone--just make contact and it works. It's very easy to hold in your right hand and type with just your thumb. Special characters are easier to type because when you press '123' the keyboard shifts and all the characters are displayed full-size, unlike hunting down the tiny characters on the BB keyboard. And the biggest benefit of of a soft keyboard is that when you're not using it, it's gone, and the iPhone's screen is TWICE the size of my BB Curve--so whenever I'm not typing, reading/looking/browsing/watching is a MUCH better experience. One final note: the iPhone's keys are in straight lines. No keyboard or keypad should EVER be made with angles or subtle curves. I *hated* this trend on cellphone numeric keypads and I equally dislike it on things like the BB Curve.

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June 08, 2009
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