[AI] HOW TO FIX THE KEYBOARD CRISIS
ilovecold at gmail.com
Sun May 9 13:38:56 EDT 2010
Computer hardware technology advances at an amazing rate, yet the
to have been forgotten.
Mike Elgan investigates
Over the past 10 years, mobile phone processors, screens and antennae
undergone radical transformations for the better. Today's phone
are vastly superior to desktop CPUs of a decade ago. Back then, mobile
were ugly, blocky and monochrome, and we'd rather forget the blocky
that stuck out the top.
But during this time, the furious innovation that saw keyboard design
forward in the 90s somehow fizzled out. The keyboards available on
small devices are pathetically poor compared with the wonders of just a
The declining standards of keyboard usability are particularly strange
consider that social networking, blogging and email mean people are
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
these categories, just about every major device on the market has a
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
onscreen keyboard. In fact, we think the company designed and executed
pretty well. Our problem is that Apple actively bans any other company
building a wireless iPhone-compatible keyboard - and it hasn't built
A company that's known for innovation is using its considerable power
market to guarantee that innovation cannot take place in precisely the
where users are crying out for it. All Apple would have to do is,
nothing, and 100 keyboard options would spontaneously emerge. Instead,
hard to prevent a keyboard being made for its flagship phone.
The iPhone's competitors fail to impress as well. The Palm Pre has
physical keyboard and a touchscreen, but users generally report that
keyboard isn't as good as those of the old Treos. BlackBerry keyboards
always been pretty good, but they haven't got better or more usable in
past five years. There's a conspicuous lack of improvement in the many
released by Nokia, LG, Samsung and the rest. Why did mobile-phone
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
innovative thing about today's netbooks is the price. They're so
seems, that all their usability problems are forgiven. The rush to
into the cheapest possible mini laptop has resulted in a huge number of
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
keyboard. Unfortunately, both the original rectangular-key design and
circular-key style of the latest generation are like keyboards from
horrible medical device from the 70s. The Kindle makes the simplest
exercise in monk-like patience.
Instead of designers doing what they're supposed to do and adapting
user interfaces to our needs, they have instead trained us to adapt to
designs. We want the iPhone's sweet multitouch user interface, so we
its slow, awkward and error-prone onscreen keyboard. We want
netbooks, so we accept a frustrating typing experience. We want the
easy-reading screen and Wi-Fi connection, so we accept its fiddly
The golden age of innovation
The IBM ThinkPad 701 series was released in 1995. The laptop was
same size as today's larger netbooks. When you opened its lid, a
desktop-quality keyboard magically snapped into place.
IBM sold the business to Lenovo in 2004. Presumably, Lenovo still
If it can't invent anything, can't it at least dust off the designs for
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
keyboard vastly superior to that of any netbook available today. The
solid and responsive and you could type at lightning speed, even though
total size of the device was far smaller than that of today's netbooks.
happening with netbooks, the OmniBook line gradually evolved into
irrelevance, and the keyboard got worse with each generation.
Another trend from the 90s was the use of fold-up pocketable keyboards
connected to mobile phones via Bluetooth. Most of these had a little
propping up the phone. You can still buy these, and they're much
trying to type on a phone keypad. They're available under brands such
Stowaway and Freedom. Palm sells a line of pocket keyboards for its
but not its new ones. The trouble is, today's fold-up keyboards aren't
smaller, better or cheaper than the ones you could buy 10 years ago.
Everybody thought the incredible keyboard innovations of the 90s were
beginning, not the end.
But there's hope
Although most netbook keyboards are terrible, at least two companies
to get things moving again. The first netbook with a great keyboard
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
by being much wider but also shallower than regular netbooks.
But almost nobody has a Vaio P because they cost a small fortune. The
is listed as starting at ukp850, but that price will buy you an
experience. A more reasonably configured system runs to well over
whereas most netbook prices are about a tenth of that.
In early December, Fujitsu announced a great-looking Windows 7 netbook
the LifeBook UH900. The form factor is very similar to the Vaio P's,
wide keyboard and smallish screen. It weighs about half a kilo. The
unexpected features such as multitouch, plus all the things you've come
expect, such as a built-in camera.
The big question, however, is how much this will cost. If Fujitsu can
price of the product below ukp500, it might have a winner on its hands.
rumours suggest it will cost much more than that.
We think these companies have the right idea. If you have to sacrifice
screen height or keyboard width to miniaturise a clamshell PC, we say
Most of us use these devices to take notes, catch up on email and do a
blogging or writing. We're not editing video or watching Blu-ray
What we need is fast and comfortable typing. When we want a dazzling
can use our full-size laptops or desktop machines.
The gadget industry has somehow convinced us that typing doesn't
It's time to fight back with our wallets. It's time we stop buying
gadgets with useless keyboards. Don't be dazzled by shiny displays
forgetting how important a good keyboard is. The industry can do
if the money flows toward better keyboards, we'll start seeing
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