The Truth About Software Keyboards


Harry McCracken at Technologizer wrote a nice piece about the virtues of hardware keyboards on smartphones.

I think one reason a keyboard argument even exists is because when competing in a given market, you have to tag a competitor’s hot product with a “missing feature,” and then provide that feature. (How many manufacturers claimed FM radio and replaceable batteries were glaring omissions from the iPod, only to find adding it to their devices made no difference?) I think the Palm Pre — mentioned in the article — has a hardware keyboard partially to trumpet having something the iPhone lacks (and partially because it’s easier to implement than a software one).

McCracken lists four benefits he believes a hardware keyboard provides:

1) Familiarity and lack of learning curve. The iPhone’s on-screen keys and autocorrection can be utterly befuddling when you first encounter them…

True enough, but this is the result of two things, only one of which is tied to the software keyboard. The flat, smooth keys are definitely unlike any keyboard most people have typed on, and take getting used to. However, autocorrection is a function that exists in hardware keyboards as well. Even keypad devices used T9 (or similar) to help “guess” your words. If Apple introduced a hardware keyboard tomorrow, an autocorrection learning curve would still exist.

2) Tactile feedback.

McCracken discusses this at length, and I do not dispute it. I’m very proficient on the iPhone’s keyboard, but even after two years I can’t say I’m totally used to not getting that feedback. I would love to see this solved, but I think the RIM Storm’s simplistic (clumsy?) attempt at adding it is a failure. I’m not sure how this can be properly solved on a software keyboard, but I would welcome it.

3) Two-handed typing.

Here McCracken is referring to thumb-typing. He can thumb-type on any hardware keyboard, but not on the iPhone. I use my index finger on smartphones, so to be honest I can’t say this “benefit” of a hardware keyboard had occurred to me. I know that requests for a landscape keyboard on the iPhone were primarily by those who want to thumbtype. They’ll get their wish in iPhone 3.0. Will that do it?

4) No resolution penalty.

This one struck me the most because I see an alternate view as a disadvantage to hardware keyboards.

What McCracken refers to is the fact that when a software keyboard is present, it takes up a large chunk of the screen. There’s no denying this, and no question it’s a drawback of a software keyboard. Though I think the statement “[T]yping e-mails that are more than a couple of sentences long presents a challenge” is overstating it. I’ve written many emails, notes, and even blog entries a lot longer than a couple of sentences. Still, his point is well taken.

Now I’d like to provide a list of what I think are software keyboard benefits:

1. No device size penalty

This is the alternate view of #4 above. With a software keyboard, the screen gets smaller, but with a hardware keyboard the entire device gets bigger. It’s fine to say a device feels great in the hand, but then you flop out the keyboard and it becomes a bit clumsy. The balance is off. It sits in your hand differently. I think people thumb-type with these because once it’s opened you almost have to handle it with two hands. It’s not at all uncommon for me to type on the iPhone with one hand. I like the fact that the device doesn’t change physical dimensions on me.

2. Portrait and landscape

A software keyboard can change to suit the user or application. A great example of this is orientation. A hardware keyboard sits one way, and that’s it. The Pre’s, for example, is portrait. That may be my preference, but if you’re a landscape junkie, too bad.

3. Appears automatically

I don’t have to grab the thing and flip it out, or up, or over when I need it. The device knows when I need it and presents it to me. Again, this makes one-handed typing for short things a lot easier. I also don’t have to put the thing away when I’m done.

4. Can be changed with software updates

Adding new layouts for other countries is a relatively simple matter. In addition, modifying the properties is possible (for example, the systemwide availability of landscape mode for OS 3.0 mentioned above).

5. Allows specialty keys

For example, in Safari there’s a special key that enters “.com”. But it doesn’t stop there; if you press and hold that key a menu pops with other common URL endings (e.g., .net, .edu). Nice. Also, when typing regular text, press and hold the vowels to see a popup of accented characters.

I could also list no keys popping off, or getting mushy, or any other of the mechanical things that can go wrong with a hardware keyboard. I believe the inherent advantages and flexible nature of a software keyboard will eventually win out over the rigid inflexibility of the hardware variety, though I don’t claim this will happen anytime soon. Well, unless they get that tactile feedback thing solved; then I think hardware keyboards are toast.

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