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Why do physical keyboards still exist for mobile?

Randy Marsden keeps a 1907 Remington typewriter in the Dryft offices. It’s to remind him that although touchscreens have replaced old-school typewriters as the input method of choice for a generation, the typewriter-inspired design principles for keyboards have remained roughly the same.

“The implementation went from mechanical to electronic, but basically you’re still pressing keys,” said Marsden, who is the cofounder of Dryft as well as the the inventor of Swype, which are both forms of keyboard software. He wants to license the software to all mobile platforms (though Apple(s aapl) rarely works with outside companies). As touchscreens become ubiquitous—and even project from the phones themselves—their keyboard software is even more important; “Otherwise, we’ll take a huge step backward in productivity,” he said.

Since multitouch smartphone screens arrived on the scene in 2007 with the original iPhone, allowing phone and tablet manufacturers to jettison keyboards for bigger screens and slimmer devices, several mobile companies have kept some keyboard phones in production. Last month alone we saw Motorola(s goog) and Samsung phones with physical QWERTY keyboards. While it’s safe to say touchscreens are the future, the existence of physical keyboards as well as continued frustration with touchscreen typing shows there’s room for improvement.

Touchscreen phones come pre-loaded with touchscreen keyboards. Apple, Android and Windows Phone(s msft) all have their own keyboards. There are also numerous keyboard apps Android end users can download themselves, including the popular FleksySwiftkey and Swype.

That’s not to mention those offering QWERTY alternatives altogether. The QWERTY keyboard was created to separate common letter pairs to prevent typewriters from jamming. It’s used today not because it’s the most efficient layout, but because it’s what people are most used to.

These virtual keyboards do a wide range of things — correct typos, predict words and even reconsider what “typing” means altogether — all with the goal of making typing on a touchscreen easier and faster.

Dryft, which launched this week at TechCrunch Disrupt, intends to revamp the touchscreen keyboard experience on tablets. Users can place their hands anywhere on the tablet touchscreen and the letters will conform to their hand shape, rather than having users orient their hands to a fixed keyboard. Additionally, dual sensors — a touch sensor and an accelerometer — allow Dryft to differentiate between resting and typing fingers based on the speed at which they strike the screen. Marsden hopes to license the software for use in Android operating systems early next year.

Also new this week is natural language processing company Ginger’s Keyboard 3.0. The keyboard app not only corrects grammar but also offers  a “Sentence Rephraser,” which suggests alternative and more complex ways of saying the thing you type anywhere on your Android device. For example, if you type “my apologees,” the app will suggest not only the correct spelling of apology, but also other ways of saying you’re sorry.

Ginger Keyboard 3.0 has a sentence rephraser that offers alternative and more complex sentences than what you typed.
Ginger Keyboard 3.0 has a sentence rephraser that offers alternative and more complex sentences than what you typed.

The audience for the app, according to Ginger’s VP of Marketing and Products David Noy, is both non-native English speakers as well as native English speakers who’d prefer to type less but say more. This obviates how fast you type because simple sentences can easily be made more complex.

“It’s less about replacing the keyboard than using it as a technological platform to add value,” Noy said.

So with all these options and alternative software keyboards out there, why do some still choose physical keyboards?

According to Marsden, the experience of typing on a QWERTY keyboard is ingrained in our brains. The problem with much touchscreen software is it replicates the keys — but not the feel of a typewriter or keypad. With many keyboards you can’t cover the keys with your fingers as you’re used to doing on a keyboard because that touch will render as an action and type unintentional letters.

The solution either requires a different model (like Swype where one drags his or her finger to each consecutive letter in a word instead of tapping) or a keyboard that acts like a keyboard and only types when you mean to type letters (Dryft), Mardsen said.

But for David Winkler, senior user experience manager at T-Mobile(s tmus), who has dealt extensively with keyboard software, the reason for physical keyboard holdouts is a lot simpler: inexperience.

He refers to research he and his team have conducted at T-Mobile when deciding which keyboards the provider should use. After having people who use physical keyboards try out a series of touchscreen keyboards, many said they would convert; they just hadn’t realized how easy it would be.

“A lot of it just helps that they were forced to try [touchscreen keyboards],” he said. “They wouldn’t have done it on their own.”

For now, touchscreen keyboard software continues to get more elaborate, combining features from different apps and software, so when physical keyboard holdouts finally do come around, their experience will be even better than they thought.

For more on the future of mobile, check out our Mobilize conference October in San Francisco.

11 Responses to “Why do physical keyboards still exist for mobile?”

  1. 100% agree with Jon. If you’re coding, if you write multilingual, if you want to type blindly, if you have to write long reports, then there is nothing better than a physical keyboard. A virtual keyboard might be good for facebooking. But there is more than just chatting in the net.

  2. G Messemer

    The article would be better titled “Why are we still using QWERTY?”
    Physical keyboards are better for users who want to type on their devices. If most of what you do is acronyms or LOLs, then yes, ditch the keyboard. For those of us who want their device to be a functional work device, I believe we need more.
    But I do like the article!

  3. My last phone was an HTC Evo Shift and now I use a Galaxy S3. On the Evo Shift, the keyboard slid down in landscape and offered a decent Qwerty with cursor keys and other useful things.

    The thing I miss most on the GS3 are the cursor keys. There is no easy way, that I’ve found, and NO virtual equivalent at all to go backward or forward to a specific spot. You have to tap and hope, and retap and retap, and retap some more, just trying to get to one spot. This wastes a lot of time and interrupts whatever you were actually doing. And god forbid taping like that brings up some sort of context menu trying to guess what you want to do.

    Along the same lines, every time I need to enter text, now I have a virtual keyboard popping up and taking a huge chunk of the screen. For example, just entering a tweet goes from what was a simple, clean text entry and now becomes a pop-up in your face touch keyboard, with no cursor keys, with simple caps and punctuation buried under at least one sub-menu, if not two. The experience is completely intrusive and disruptive. You can barely even actually see the twitter app at that point because the virtual keyboard has taken over most of the screen. It’s a brutal way to do it. Like being hit in the face with a shovel when you open a door.

    And no, Apple is no better at this.

    I suppose this is better than trying to draw a UI in the dirt with a stick, but it stinks compared to what is possible. It’s just a pity having a decent phone -which the Evo Shift was not- requires giving up the keyboard.

    The GS3 does work well with a USB dongle and a real office keyboard plugged in, but of course lugging around a full keyboard is silly. OH let me get out my giant keyboard to use with my teeny phone.

  4. I think you’re missing the biggest issue with any kind of virtual keyboard – it introduces an additional cognitive step into the human-device interface. With a physical keyboard you can touchtype and not look at the screen at all and feel confident that your thoughts are being correctly translated into the device. With a virtual keyboard of any type, you have to constantly watch the device and then make a conscious evaluation of whether the keyboard is correctly implementing what you’re trying to type.

    I don’t think there’s actually any way to solve this correctly without having a physical interface – haptic feedback just won’t deliver the same experience. As long as that’s the case, a virtual keyboard will always be a second-tier system for content creation – anyone who does any significant writing always uses a physical keyboard (thus the huge market of ipad keyboard accessories).

    • Rani Molla

      I agree that if you’re doing a significant amount of writing, a keyboard is key (I used one for this article). I’m focusing more on entering text or texting on mobile devices. Typing on mobile is usually less intensive–but it’s still necessary. This software is trying to make mobile text input easier, but is not necessarily an alternative for those who regularly write a lot.

      Additionally, from the videos for some of the software, it appears that people *can* type without looking–especially Dryft, where you can type as usual regardless of the location of your fingers. To find out whether this works or not, we won’t really know until we get to try it.

      • I think you’re putting an assumption in that typing on mobile is less intensive – I’d argue that it’s less intensive because the interface is so crappy today. On my BB I’d often craft emails and documents for work that were multi-paragraph. On my iphone and now Android devices, I wait until I get back to my laptop before I write a full response – I’ll only do abbreviated ones on my mobile device because the interface is a real drawback.

        I’d pay significantly for an Android based device that had the form factor and usability of the BB Bold that actually had good internals and a nice (but smaller) screen – I’d rather have 1.5″ of keyboard on the bottom of my device than a 5″ screen that ends up being 1/3 keyboard 50% of the time. I’m sure there’s a smallish market of corporate professionals that feel the same way (you’d be amazed how many people in business / finance still carry BBs in addition to an iphone).

    • Interested Observer

      Jon nails the issue. Frankly, I would love to tether my original Blackberry to the iPhone for typing purposes. Aside from typing without looking, it offered great shortcuts like capitalization (press and hold vs. two keys) and no need to bounce between keyboard views. Maybe, someone smarter than me will create a clip-on Bluetooth, Blackberry-like keyboard gadget for the iPhone – slide down for full screen, slide up for typing.