7 for 7: To Keyboard or Not to Keyboard, That is the Question

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This is the first in a series of 7 posts in the 7 days prior to Apple’s January 27 media event in which I explore various possibilities for an Apple Tablet and other potential announcements.

The world is expecting Apple to announce a new tablet, or slate, style computer on January 27. Most predictions peg the device as essentially an iPod touch with a 10″ screen. But simply scaling Mac OS X Mobile to a larger screen size isn’t likely, as the operating system that currently powers iPhone and iPod touch models is optimized for their specific screens. The question arises, then, as to how users will input text into the Apple tablet.

The iPhone keyboard works well for several reasons. The device is small enough that you can type with just one hand while holding the phone with the same hand. The keys are surprisingly large, even in portrait mode, and Apple technology makes keys invisibly larger based on likely letter combinations. Auto-correction works well enough that the easiest way to become a fast typist on the iPhone is to suspend your disbelief that you’ll make mistakes, and just keep typing.

The same keyboard on a larger screen, whether still small or scaled up, wouldn’t work nearly as well. The biggest problem would be holding the tablet and typing at the same time. If the form factor is anything like most suspect it will be, the weight and balance of the tablet would make such input impossible, requiring users to instead hold it with one hand and hunt-and-peck to type with the other.

Current Lines of Thought

Perhaps the most obvious solution would be to split the onscreen keyboard and push it to the edges, allowing users to hold the device and type with their thumbs. A similar approach was used with a number of ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs), such as the Samsung Q1. This doesn’t strike me as particularly elegant or particularly Apple, but it could work, and might be the easiest solution technically.

Another option is an altogether different keyboard interface purposefully designed for five-finger typing with one hand. Users could hold the device in one hand, and quickly type with all fingers of the other. Combined with advanced multi-touch gestures for text input and overall control, this method is reminiscent of Microsoft Surface and Minority Report.

Unlike the iPhone and iPod touch, Apple could also allow the tablet to work with hardware keyboards, either via Bluetooth or USB connections. The current Apple wireless keyboard would make a perfect companion for times when touch input isn’t sufficient, with the touchscreen display eliminating the need to also have a mouse. Using a traditional keyboard also strikes me as very inelegant and un-Apple, but may be needed to drive mass adoption.

A Hardware Solution

However, a hardware keyboard designed specifically for the tablet and doubles as a dock might fit the bill. Given Apple’s apparent cloud ambitions (building a data center in North Carolina, purchasing LaLa, etc.) and cost concerns, the tablet is likely to have a small amount of onboard storage compared to laptops. Chances are that Apple will view the tablet as a cloud computing device, or one of several satellites orbiting around a full Mac serving as the digital media hub. Like the iPhone or iPod touch, the tablet may only hold a portion of your songs, movies, pictures and other media, meaning it will need to connect for syncing. A dock for syncing that doubles as a keyboard, with Jon Ives’ design panache, would be an excellent way to meet core needs while also extending the functionality of the device.

Given all of these options, I’m expecting three things: a variant of the software user interface that further limits users need to input text even more than the iPhone already does; an advanced multi-touch user interface that is optimized for five-finger input; and the option to use a keyboard–possibly a new keyboard that doubles as a dock–when necessary. The next-generation multi-touch capabilities that Apple has patented and developed are likely too advanced for many of today’s computer users. I expect the tablet multi-touch user interface to follow a similar path of increasing complexity and capability over several years as the trackpad and Magic Mouse have.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Rumored Apple Tablet: Opportunities Too Big to Ignore

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