Why do physical keyboards still exist for mobile?

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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 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 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 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, 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.

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