[AI] HOW TO FIX THE KEYBOARD CRISIS

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Sun May 9 13:38:56 EDT 2010


Computer hardware technology advances at an amazing rate, yet the 

keyboard seems
to have been forgotten.

Mike Elgan investigates 

Over the past 10 years, mobile phone processors, screens and antennae 

have
undergone radical transformations for the better.  Today's phone 

processors
are vastly superior to desktop CPUs of a decade ago.  Back then, mobile 

screens
were ugly, blocky and monochrome, and we'd rather forget the blocky 

antennae
that stuck out the top.

But during this time, the furious innovation that saw keyboard design 

leap
forward in the 90s somehow fizzled out.  The keyboards available on 

today's
small devices are pathetically poor compared with the wonders of just a 

few
years ago.

The declining standards of keyboard usability are particularly strange 

when you
consider that social networking, blogging and email mean people are 

typing more
than ever.  Yet the industry doesn't innovate in this space any more.

The keyboard crisis 

Businesspeople on the move will typically carry a netbook and 

smartphone and use
other small mobile devices with keyboards, such as e-book readers.  Yet 

in all
these categories, just about every major device on the market has a 

keyboard
that's hard to use and slow.

The worst offender is the iPhone.  We don't have an issue with Apple's
decision to devote the front of the iPhone to screen space, nor with 

the
onscreen keyboard.  In fact, we think the company designed and executed 

it
pretty well.  Our problem is that Apple actively bans any other company 

from
building a wireless iPhone-compatible keyboard - and it hasn't built 

one
itself.

A company that's known for innovation is using its considerable power 

over the
market to guarantee that innovation cannot take place in precisely the 

area
where users are crying out for it.  All Apple would have to do is, 

well,
nothing, and 100 keyboard options would spontaneously emerge.  Instead, 

it works
hard to prevent a keyboard being made for its flagship phone.

The iPhone's competitors fail to impress as well.  The Palm Pre has 

both a
physical keyboard and a touchscreen, but users generally report that 

the
keyboard isn't as good as those of the old Treos.  BlackBerry keyboards 

have
always been pretty good, but they haven't got better or more usable in 

the
past five years.  There's a conspicuous lack of improvement in the many 

phones
released by Nokia, LG, Samsung and the rest.  Why did mobile-phone 

keyboard
innovation stop?

And things are no better in the netbook market.  The industry pretends 

this is a
new category, but tiny laptops have existed for at least 16 years.  The 

only
innovative thing about today's netbooks is the price.  They're so 

cheap, it
seems, that all their usability problems are forgiven.  The rush to 

cram keys
into the cheapest possible mini laptop has resulted in a huge number of 

these
devices gathering dust simply because they're so irritating to type on.

In the past two years, a real e-book market has emerged.  The leader 

here is the
Amazon Kindle, which came with several innovations, including a full 

qwerty
keyboard.  Unfortunately, both the original rectangular-key design and 

the
circular-key style of the latest generation are like keyboards from 

some
horrible medical device from the 70s.  The Kindle makes the simplest 

tasks an
exercise in monk-like patience.

Instead of designers doing what they're supposed to do and adapting 

physical
user interfaces to our needs, they have instead trained us to adapt to 

their bad
designs.  We want the iPhone's sweet multitouch user interface, so we 

accept
its slow, awkward and error-prone onscreen keyboard.  We want 

low-priced
netbooks, so we accept a frustrating typing experience.  We want the 

Kindle's
easy-reading screen and Wi-Fi connection, so we accept its fiddly 

design.

The golden age of innovation 

The IBM ThinkPad 701 series was released in 1995.  The laptop was 

roughly the
same size as today's larger netbooks.  When you opened its lid, a 

full-size,
desktop-quality keyboard magically snapped into place.

IBM sold the business to Lenovo in 2004.  Presumably, Lenovo still 

holds the
patent.

If it can't invent anything, can't it at least dust off the designs for 

the
701 and build this fantastic keyboard into its IdeaPad netbooks?

HP came out with a tiny laptop in 1993 called the OmniBook 300 that had 

a
keyboard vastly superior to that of any netbook available today.  The 

keys were
solid and responsive and you could type at lightning speed, even though 

the
total size of the device was far smaller than that of today's netbooks. 

 As is
happening with netbooks, the OmniBook line gradually evolved into 

generic
irrelevance, and the keyboard got worse with each generation.

Another trend from the 90s was the use of fold-up pocketable keyboards 

that
connected to mobile phones via Bluetooth.  Most of these had a little 

stand for
propping up the phone.  You can still buy these, and they're much 

better than
trying to type on a phone keypad.  They're available under brands such 

as iGo
Stowaway and Freedom.  Palm sells a line of pocket keyboards for its 

old phones,
but not its new ones.  The trouble is, today's fold-up keyboards aren't 

much
smaller, better or cheaper than the ones you could buy 10 years ago.

Everybody thought the incredible keyboard innovations of the 90s were 

just the
beginning, not the end.

But there's hope 

Although most netbook keyboards are terrible, at least two companies 

are trying
to get things moving again.  The first netbook with a great keyboard 

was the
Sony Vaio P.  Like all newer Sony Vaio laptops, the P has those flat,
MacBook-style keys that people either love or hate.  The Vaio achieves 

its magic
by being much wider but also shallower than regular netbooks.

But almost nobody has a Vaio P because they cost a small fortune.  The 

product
is listed as starting at ukp850, but that price will buy you an 

inadequate
experience.  A more reasonably configured system runs to well over 

ukp1,000,
whereas most netbook prices are about a tenth of that.

In early December, Fujitsu announced a great-looking Windows 7 netbook 

called
the LifeBook UH900.  The form factor is very similar to the Vaio P's, 

with a
wide keyboard and smallish screen.  It weighs about half a kilo.  The 

UH900 has
unexpected features such as multitouch, plus all the things you've come 

to
expect, such as a built-in camera.

The big question, however, is how much this will cost.  If Fujitsu can 

get the
price of the product below ukp500, it might have a winner on its hands. 

 But
rumours suggest it will cost much more than that.

We think these companies have the right idea.  If you have to sacrifice 

either
screen height or keyboard width to miniaturise a clamshell PC, we say 

sacrifice
the screen.

Most of us use these devices to take notes, catch up on email and do a 

little
blogging or writing.  We're not editing video or watching Blu-ray 

movies.
What we need is fast and comfortable typing.  When we want a dazzling 

screen, we
can use our full-size laptops or desktop machines.

The gadget industry has somehow convinced us that typing doesn't 

matter.
It's time to fight back with our wallets.  It's time we stop buying 

mobile
gadgets with useless keyboards.  Don't be dazzled by shiny displays 

while
forgetting how important a good keyboard is.  The industry can do 

better.  And
if the money flows toward better keyboards, we'll start seeing 

innovation
again.



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