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Summary:

Last weekend, New York Times’ Virginia Heffernanhit a resonant chord with me in a wonderfully crafted piece eloquently relating why she hated the iPhone experience so much she returned her iPhone to AT&T, replacing it with a BlackBerry. The nexus of Ms. Heffernan’s iPhone discontent was […]

Last weekend, New York Times’ Virginia Heffernanhit a resonant chord with me in a wonderfully crafted piece eloquently relating why she hated the iPhone experience so much she returned her iPhone to AT&T, replacing it with a BlackBerry.

The nexus of Ms. Heffernan’s iPhone discontent was mainly an issue that I can identify with — her dislike of the Apple device’s touchscreen virtual keyboard. I also detest touchscreens, and even as someone who makes his living partly from writing about Apple products, when I get a smartphone (something I’ve successfully resisted so far due to the fact that the nearest 3G or GSM wireless coverage ends some 35 miles short of where I live) I would likely opt for a BlackBerry myself because it has a real analog keyboard.

There’s something that just rubs me (pun intended) the wrong way at a very elemental level about touching display screens. I’m extremely picky about keeping my computer and iPod displays, TV screens, digital camera preview LCDs, etc. clean and free of smears and smudges, and I recoil reflexively from touching them, so touchscreens are massively counterintuitive for me to almost the degree of a phobia. But it goes deeper than that. I had a pocket calculator and organizer for a while that required data and control entry via a screen stylus, and while technically that didn’t involve actually touching the display with my fingers, I still didn’t like it as an input method.

I’m a mechanically-oriented guy, and I’m most comfortable working with input keys that visibly depress when you push on them, and whose movement registers spatially and visually. Touch screens offer no typing feedback, as typo-strewn messages from my iPhone-user friends highlight.

As Virginia Heffernan notes, with her iPhone “To answer the phone, I had to touch the screen. Years of not touching screens – so as not to smudge or scar – made me wary. But I brushed the ‘answer call’ and up came fragments of my mother’s cheerful voice….I hunted for a keypad to call her back, but it was gone…”

Then there was something about the iPhone touchscreen “keyboard” that seemed to induce ineptness. “My right index finger – the only digit precise enough to hit the close-set virtual iPhone keys – seemed an anemic, cerebral thing, designed for making paltry points in debating club. I repeatedly stabbed to the right of my target letter. It was like being 4 again – or being 90. I couldn’t see, it seemed; I couldn’t point; I couldn’t connect.”

I find myself klutzy and error prone with touchscreen input, too.

I’m also of the same school of thought as Ms. Heffernan on what she calls the iPhone’s “know-it-all suggestions.” She observes that “the iPhone seemed to want to be more human, more helpful, jollier than I was! The vaunted Apple user-friendliness was exposed, before my eyes, as bossiness and insincerity,” in a word, “smug.” That assertive busybody dynamic is one of the characteristics I really detest about most Microsoft software, and unfortunately increasingly creeping into Apple’s software applications and even hardware (eg: the ambient light sensitive screen brightness setting on my new MacBook) as well. I like to think for myself.

What worries me most is that some rumor speculation suggests that Apple’s answer to the PC netbook market share challenge could come in the form of an oversized iPod touch rather than an Apple riff on the conventional mini-laptop form factor with a real keyboard and a screen that you keep your grubby paws off of. Personally, I have less than zero interest in even an ultra-portable computer with a touchscreen keyboard, although a tablet that allowed for stylus based handwriting recognition and command input might have some utility — so long as the option remained to hook up a keyboard and mouse when practical.

I’ll be keenly interested to see what materializes, but if it does turn out to be a touchscreen netbook, I’m apprehensive that the touchscreen blight could spread into Apple’s regular notebook space, as the non-swappable battery metastasized from the MacBook Air to the 17″ unibody MacBook Pro.

Don’t go there, Apple — please!

  1. Interesting to hear the other side.

    I find the touch screen quite intuitive and I love how it gets out of the way and is adaptable to the changing UI needs. The ‘smug’ suggestions allow much faster typing speeds, and the suggestions are learned, so smugness is reduced over time.

    I’m very interested to see what netbook options Apple comes up with.

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  2. I could not disagree more. The options available on the iPhone are almost limitless, and their ability to keep the cost of porting the iPhone into other languages allows for them to spend the money elsewhere. On new more innovative products. And just to prove my point I’ve written this entire comment using my iPhone an gave myself less than 2 min to enter.

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  3. “I hate touching my screen” is right up there with “that’s not real music” and “they don’t make them like they used to” in the Top 10 Signs You Have Become Your Parent.

    (Also included: Referring to an adult younger than you as a “kid” when you describe them.)

    Don’t sweat it. There’s nothing new under the sun.

    I remember in the late 80s how many people resisted the computer mouse (most of them over the age of 30), but by 1995 everyone was using one. I remember in the late 70s and early 80s how resistant people over 40 were to ANYTHING computerized. (Robot Bank Tellers? Laser codes on groceries? Digital watches? NEVER!)

    My advice now is the same as it was then: Ask someone closer to 15 than to 30 to explain it to you, then try to have some patience and an open mind as you actually listen to their answer rather than arguing with it.

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  4. I thought her article was pretty laughable, sounding like it came from my grandmother, if my grandmother wasn’t as cool as she is :)

    So you can imagine what I think of this one. Though I wasn’t sold on the iPhone before I had one, I am now. I can type pretty quickly on my iPhone, and I only notice smudges when the iphone screen is black.

    Great job by apple. You can’t please everyone. Go get your blackberry and be happy.

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  5. “Touch screens offer no typing feedback, as typo-strewn messages from my iPhone-user friends highlight.”

    There *is* feedback. Perhaps you meant no *tactile* feedback. I don’t see the relevance between tactile feel and correct spelling. I get many more spelling errors from non-iPhone users sent to me then from people who use iPhone.

    Perhaps you should just skip the mobile phone thing all together. You’re land line works great doesn’t it? Leave all this mobile stuff to the kids and their touch screens.

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  6. I can add an accent to a character with one stroke. How many command would that take on a hardware-based keyboard?

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  7. Xairbusdriver Friday, April 10, 2009

    “keys that visibly depress when you push on them”! You mean you can actually see those tiny keys on most phones? Especially those with so-called “Full-keyboards?!” Give me a break! I’m over 65 and the main reason I stayed with my old ‘dumb’ phone was the ridiculously small ‘keyboards’ that I would have had to use! There are so many ways to type with the on-screen keyboard! The accented characters is one, but also sliding ones finger from he number button to the desired number and THEN lifting your finger, returns you directly to the Alpha keys automatically. There are dozens of tips like this that make using the on-screen keys amazingly versatile. Talk about fear of change…maybe when those two are my age they’ll learn from their mistakes! 8-)

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  8. I hear you, but, for me, I’m hoping that Apple does go there.

    I love the idea of a Mac Touch where the keyboard can hide when you don’t need it. That would be a true ultramobile laptop. If you can pair a physical keyboard by USB or bluetooth, then you have the best of both worlds.

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  9. I’m so sick of hearing this anti-touchscreen analysis. Give it a good trial–I’ve never had a problem but then I’ve never used a blackberry. The idea of losing screen real estate to a physical keyboard is ridiculous and abhorrent to me. I think a lot of problems with the virtual KB will also go away with OS 3.0 and the implementation of the larger landscape KB. The explanation for the typos you’ve been seeing is just symptomatic of the fact most iPhone owners are idiots who way overpay for a device whose functions and power they don’t understand or that they’ll never use. BTW, I too am anal about my screens and so I use a screen protector. They’re hell to put on–I usually go through 3 before I get it right–but they work great.

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  10. I’ve nothing against a touch-screen input. I love it in fact and I’m hoping to get a second-hand iPhone at a price I can afford when the third generation comes out this summer. But I played with the screen keyboard at an Apple store and didn’t like it for the same reason I dislike regular keyboards with a mushy feel. It doesn’t provide enough feedback. And having touch typed since high school, I resent a system that requires me to look at the keyboard.

    That’s why I put a lot of thought into an alternative that might be called Swipe to Type. Long or short swipes give a much better feel for what you’re doing than touching a tiny target. And this is a keyboard you can use in the dark, while bouncing around on a subway, or even inside a large pocket. It’s also inherently efficient. The more often a letter is used, the quicker it is to input. An “e” for instance, is a short swipe and a “t” is a long one. And capital letters don’t require using any sort of shift key. Feel free to pass this idea on.

    Swipe to Type

    Here’s an alternate text input technique for the iPhone and similar devices that might be faster and more accurate for many people. It uses a feature the iPhone already has, a multi-touch screen, rather than external hardware such as a collapsible Bluetooth keyboard. You not only don’t have to look at the screen, with a little practice you can enter text in the dark even while bouncing around, as on a bus or subway. And since the only requirements for text input are basic hand coordination and a sense of touch, it makes the iPhone much more usable for the visually impaired and those with limited hand-eye coordination.

    What is it?

    * It uses a well-established open source standard—International Morse Code. But instead of short and long key presses, dots are input by short swipes and dashes by long swipes.

    * Speed of input doesn’t matter. Unlike regular Morse, which assumes a pause in sending to be a break between letters, user input can be as slow or fast as the users wants without error. Letters are distinguished by alternating swiping right/left and then up/down. (A user-set delay inputs the last character, i.e. one not followed by a swipe in a different direction.)

    * Swipe mode changes when the user rotates the screen.

    * Because Morse Code is already optimized for fast input in most languages, text can be entered very fast. The more often a letter is used, the shorter its Morse Code equivalent is. An e is a single short swipe and a T is a single long swipe. It couldn’t be easier.

    Additional Features

    Morse input would also take advantage of a touch screen’s flexibility to add features that International Morse Code doesn’t have. Examples include:

    * Lowercase letters are made by swiping left-to-right or up-to-down.

    * Uppercase letters are made by swiping right-to-left or down-to-up. Alternately, two-finger swipes could be used for uppercase.

    * Common punctuation uses diagonal swipes, i.e. upper-left to lower-right for a space, lower-left to upper-right for a period or a period plus space. Diagonal swipes with two or three fingers could have other meanings.

    * Circling CCW might delete the previous character. Circling CW might enter a Return. Alternately, a short shake of the iPhone deletes the previous letter, while a longer shake deletes the previous word.

    * Because text input is always a swipe that doesn’t need for anything to be displayed for it to work, the entire screen is free for other uses, either display or touching without swiping. It can be used to display the text being entered, to have buttons for commands, or to show a chart for those just learning Morse. This makes maximum use of scarce screen space.

    * Certain easy-to-make touches could be used to make common commands easy to do. Touching the keyboard with another finger, perhaps the thumb in the lower-left corner for right-handed people, might signify something. For instance, it might bring up a scrolling list of long, user-set text strings (i.e. a phone number or address) from which the user could select. Inside applications, it could be used for something important. Inside an email program, for instance, it could send the just-entered email. Inside a writing program, it could be used to start a new paragraph.

    * In learner mode, the screen would display the Morse alphabet and text input would be on a scrolling line. Letters or words could be spoken as typed to speed up learning and accuracy.

    For those willing to learn Morse, which is far easier than most people think (especially for sending), it offers a fast, virtually error-free text interface for the iPhone, one that has tactile feedback built into the design. Most important of all, it’s a text input technique that doesn’t require users to constantly look at the screen. Since the target is the entire screen, it’s impossible to miss and the touch of the screen provides the tactile feedback lacking in the on-screen keyboard.

    Feel free to pass the idea along to anyone who might want to implement it.

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