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The Truth About Software Keyboards

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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 (s aapl) 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.

24 Responses to “The Truth About Software Keyboards”

  1. A touch screen keyboard that provides ample room is the Phraze-It Keyboard. You can type with your fingers on the large Phraze-It on-screen keys. It has the keys of a complete computer keyboard. The Phraze-It Keyboard is very intuitive and easy to use. No need to hunt around among the very crowded QWERTY keys.

  2. McCraken keeps putting his underwear on backwards. Seems lately, he can not find a thing he likes about an Apple iPhone. Maybe he should notice that consumers do not agree with him!

  3. rwahrens

    The holding of the letter on the iPhone keyboard for accented letters doesn’t just work on vowels, it will work on any key that takes accents.

  4. JohnnyC

    I haven’t seen this mentioned in any of the comparisons yet:

    Being flexible with the location of input and visuals, far outweighs the space tradeoff for the unadaptable and extremely limited functionality of a physical keyboard that may be rarely used. There are simply far more functions that do not require keyboard input, than functions that DO. This is particularly true with the iPhone and it’s endless ecosystem of software.

    That’s just my pair of pennies.

  5. I have no love for the physical keyboard on my LG Scoop. I can type quite fast on it, with little error, but I still feel like it wouldn’t make a difference switching to a software keyboard like the iPhone.

    Perhaps I’ll get the opportunity to use an iPhone one day… when Apple kills the AT&T exclusivity deal – I just refuse to pay AT&T’s fees.

  6. Champs

    The iPhone’s keyboard works a treat, right up until you need a number, punctuation, or you make an inline typing correction and the OS stops auto-correcting the word. It fails. Accented symbols and the like are fine, but try a Sidekick’s hardware keyboard and get back to me.

    Also note… deploying a hardware keyboard is also an effective screen unlock — so perhaps it’s not so “inconvenient.”

  7. The Pre’s keyboard is unusable for me. I seriously don’t know what they were thinking. The best physical keys I have seen so far are the Blackberry Bold but I would not give up the larger screen for a physical keyboard the way you do with Blackberries.

  8. Wow. I should probably post on Technologizer but …

    Regarding #2, I haven’t found the lack of tactile feedback to be an issue. I have my typing clicking sound enabled so perhaps that helps psychologically.

    Regarding #3, am I the only one who noticed that Apple widened the iPhone 3G last year with that black border on the right and left of the screen? For me at least, the wider dimensions enable me to comfortably thumb type in portrait mode versus the original iPhone.

    Regarding #4, I’ll take it compared to a chunkier phone that won’t fit in my jeans pocket. Harry obviously didn’t receive the memo that many professionals dress casually nowadays and that man purses never took off in the US.

  9. Andrew Sheridan

    Tom, your comments on the landscape aspect of the virtual keyboard are spot on but you missed the fact that if you are using a Pre app in landscape (browser) and then wish to type, you have to turn the phone to do this.

  10. I think everyone forgets doesn’t need localised hardware for every single country in which the phone is sold – saving large amounts of money in production.

  11. The problem with people’s opinions is that they tend to 1) present them as fact and 2) frame them from their own *personal* experience.

    Like you noted, there’s tons of benefits to a software keyboard (which I think outweigh the negatives), but some of the “negatives” presented aren’t present for many.

    I, for one, thumb type on the iPhone’s software keyboard (even in portrait) all the time. Granted, when I first got my iPhone, all I could do was simple index finger hunt-and-peck, but just like with anything, if you use it enough, you get used to it and what some see as problems aren’t problems for you.

    But maybe Apple should rollout the iPhone3G[K] (K stands for Klunky) and put a hardware keyboard on it so the whiners won’t have anything to whine about anymore ;) .

  12. Another very important point in favour of software keyboard — multi-language support. Any language can be programmed into a phone OS — great benefit for localisation.

    Whenever they try to fit two (or, God forbid, more) languages on a hardware keyboard it ends up being significantly less usable because of the visual clutter and often times the necessity to add extra keys for certain languages.

  13. dave W

    Haptic screen?

    Some devices already have them. Haptics of course supposedly add ‘feel’ to touch screens but haven’t tried them so don’t know how well they work or power consumption etc.

  14. Gazoobee

    @ Tom: The T9 anecdote made me think of something else, which is that even for those that use it all day, T9 is a bit of a hassle at best. I know quite a few people (myself included!) that actively hate it, and think it to be a horrible “solution.”

    However, it is in fact wildly popular overall and available on almost every phone out there.

    The reason is that people will actually put up with a heck of a lot if they don’t have a choice. If the only way to text from a cell is by using T9, then T9 will be popular. Likewise, if there was nothing other than software keyboards on everything, most people will just muddle through with it even if they don’t like it.

    As long as the software keyboard is somewhere to the north (usability-wise) of T9, then it’s “usable” and probably will stay around forever. Given the other advantages it provides in terms of flexibility of product design, it will eventually probably win out over the hardware keyboard for mobiles of a certain size.

  15. @Bobin

    I get that. I’ve got very wide fingertips, so I type the wrong key more frequently than I’d like. But the wide fingertips are also what are responsible for the typing multiple keys on the hardware keyboards, but the difference is that autocorrect will generally catch a wrong keystroke, but doesn’t do well with multiple keystrokes.

    Consider misspelling the word “thumb” on the two keyboards. If I hit multiple keys (hardware) and misspell it as “thunmb”, it takes an extra stroke of the backspace key to correct this than if I hit the wrong key (iPhone) and type “thunb”, since I have to go back over an extra letter. It’s a pretty minor issue, but it’s just annoying enough to make me prefer the iPhone keyboard.

  16. Galley

    Creating accented characters on a Mac or iPhone is so much easier than on a PC. To create a lower case “e” with an acute accent:

    PC: 1. Start –> All Programs –> Accessories –> System Tools –> Character Map
    2. Scroll through hundreds of characters, select é, copy and paste.

    Mac: Option, e, e

    iPhone: press and hold the letter e. Select the accented character from the pop-up menu.

    True, you can create accented characters with shortcuts on a PC keyboard, but who can remember “alt + 0233”?

  17. James,

    “but some of them need a distinction between flip-out keyboards and stationary ones”

    Fair enough, though phones with stationary keyboards tend to have smaller screens to begin with, which is the complaint made of a software keyboard (i.e., it takes too much from the screen space).


    “A lot of people just don’t seem to want to follow Apple’s advice and “let fly” with the keyboard.”

    I agree. Apple’s auto-correct is very good. But there are a lot of people who hate such things. I remember activating T9 on a friends keypad phone, and after one day she begged me to turn it off.

  18. I see this issue in 2 ways: Consumer and Business.

    People buy what they want. Some people like touch screens some don’t. People who cannot live without a particular feature (i.e. physical keyboard) will not consider such a device regardless of it’s other features. Most of the discussion I have seen on this issue can basically be summed up by saying, “I like it this way, so this way is the right way.” I’m all for consumer choice, but it seems like a given that if a person likes something a particular way that is what they will choose if give the opportunity.

    For the Business side:
    It does not make since for Apple to produce an iPhone with a physical keyboard because it would limit the places where such a phone could be sold. Apple has made it very clear that they want a world-wide market. From the business side this seems a much better decision, as a company, than what other companies are doing. Apple is essentially training their customers to expect a feature that benefits Apple to produce. Manufacturers that use physical keyboards in a single language are training their customers to expect something that, by design, limits the reach of the product.

    I personally think that touch screen keyboards have a very good chance to to replace physical keyboards as the primary input method for mobile devices. Companies like RIM and Palm should spend the time to determine which way works for their business model; Apple already has.

  19. Apple’s “resizing hit areas while you type” is bizarre, also. It consistently thinks that when I try to type the word “Megan,” I mean to be typing “Megab”-something. It expands the b so largely that I literally can’t hit it. I suppose that according to Apple, my friend’s name is actually Megabyte. :)

  20. Some people simply prefer a hardware keyboard; I frequently hear people saying they’d get an iPhone if only it had a hardware keyboard. This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the actual value of the thing, but rather of its perceived value and functionality.

    Vista is a great operating system, but it’s perceived to be crappy. Like that.

    There are also people who like clamshell phones so much that they simply won’t consider a phone that isn’t that, because of a personal preference. Listing (in a perfectly agreeable fashion, by the way) the ways that the virtual keyboard is comparable or better than hardware fails to consider that it isn’t just about a comparison of features, but what the user wants.

    Personally I like the the onscreen keyboard, but the predictive stuff gets in my way a reasonable amount. Also, I miss being able to type without looking at the phone; I’m a touch-typist, and I spend much time writing things out while looking away from the computer. I could do that easily on my Blackberry Pearl, but it’s a real challenge with the iPhone.

    I agree that the Pre (and other phones of that type) does nicely sidestep that issue.

  21. Gazoobee

    I don’t understand the comments about thumb-typing. I’ve been thumb typing in portrait mode on the iPhone since the first day and never use landscape mode. I also have very large hands relative to most others. I generally get about 40 wpm which is excellent for me. I now others that type even faster the same way.

    I also find (just a subjective observation), that the kind of people who like the landscape keyboard on the iPhone are not thumb-typers, but those timid, conservative types who insist on laying the iPhone down on a table (landscape-wise) and pretending like it’s a tiny tiny typewriter. For me thumb-typing is *harder* in landscape mode in that the vertical dimension is greatly reduced relative to the horizontal. This means I generally hit the space bar instead of the right keys a lot and my hands get cramped a lot quicker.

    A lot of people just don’t seem to want to follow Apple’s advice and “let fly” with the keyboard. I think life-long conservatives might be the only people who have problems with the software keyboard. :-)

    Also, I can’t find the link right now, but someone did several tests of a Blackberry and iPhone side by side back in iPhone 1.0 days and the iPhone always won.

  22. I generally agree with Tom’s response to the argument in favour of hardware keyboards, but some of them need a distinction between flip-out keyboards and stationary ones, like on the Curve. If you take the Curve into consideration, a couple of the criticisms of hardware keyboards become slightly weaker.

    However, I do prefer the iPhone’s software keyboard to most hardware ones, primarily because I find it too easy to hit multiple keys at once on smartphone hardware keyboards, which doesn’t happen with the iPhone. Both types of keyboard slow my typing considerably, but I find the iPhone’s keyboard eminently preferable.

  23. I’ve found that I can thumb type with both hands pretty reliably in both portrait and landscape. It look some time to get proficient, but I don’t see any advantage with a physical keyboard now except for screen real estate.