Mobile Phone Keyboards

I missed it while I was at WWDC last month, but Tim Bray wrote a thoughtful piece regarding whether hardware keyboards are an important feature. Bray owns and very much likes an HTC Android G1, and writes:

As of now, I will absolutely not consider using any such device that doesn’t include a physical keyboard.

I think the question boils down to whether Apple is making a mistake by not making an iPhone with a hardware keyboard. I’m convinced the answer is no — that (a) there will never be an iPhone with a built-in hardware keyboard; and (b) Apple will not suffer for it.

But that’s not to say that I think hardware keyboards will go away industry-wide. I think it’s safe to say that RIM, for example, isn’t going away any time soon, and their foray into software keyboard models has not gone well (to say the least). But it’s worth noting that HTC’s follow-up to the G1, the Magic, has no hardware keyboard.

Bray, arguing that Apple is making a mistake by not offering a hardware keyboard, writes:

I could draw parallels with Apple’s lengthy and deeply misguided conviction that one button on a mouse is enough. And maybe I am a niche. But you know, it’s a great big honking niche that includes a ton of Android and Blackberry and now Palm Pre users. And the iPhone users will be sitting next to them in departure lounges and staff meetings and coffee shops and watching them power-thumb their thoughts to their friends.

What I think I wasn’t clear about before, when I argued that the iPhone’s software keyboard is not holding it back — is that some people are extremely fast iPhone typists, and most iPhone users do just fine with it. I.e., my argument is not that the iPhone keyboard is poor compared to hardware phone keyboards but that it’s an acceptable trade-off. Rather, my argument is more along the lines of: (1) that all phone-size keyboards — hardware or software — are poor compared to real honest-to-god full-size put-your-eight-fingers-across-the-home-row-keys keyboards; but (2) given a week or two of use and some trust in the auto-correct system, most people can thumb-type just as well, if not better, on an iPhone as they could on a BlackBerry or a slider-style keyboard like the G1’s.1

I, for one, type pretty well on it, and but I saw some people at WWDC last month whose iPhone typing speed simply blew me away. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out that the average typing speed of iPhone owners is about the same, or even faster, than that of people with hardware-keyboard phones. And if it’s worse, I’ll bet it’s not by much.

What is undeniable is that the typing experience on the iPhone is very different than that on a hardware-keyboard phone. Your thumbs may travel more or less the same distance, but it’s a totally different feel. The people who seem to struggle the most with the iPhone keyboard are those who’ve spent the most time thumb-typing with hardware keyboards. And that works both ways: when I got the chance to use a Pre for 30 minutes or so last month, I could not type for shit on it with my thumbs, but yet I’m quite certain that if I lived with a Pre for a few weeks I’d be typing well enough.

Are software touchscreen keyboards good for everyone? Certainly not. But this is another aspect of the Apple Way. Apple tries to make things that many people love, not things that all people like. The key is that they’re not afraid of the staunch criticism, and often outright derision, that comes with breaking conventions.

E.g., I still see complaints regarding the 3GS’s lack of a removable battery, a trend Apple started not with the original iPhone in 2007 but with the original iPod in 2001. And in fact, rather than bend to this criticism and add removable batteries to any of its handheld devices, Apple is doing the opposite and switching to non-removable batteries in its notebook computers. Unless I’m overlooking something, the only product left in Apple’s entire product line with a removable battery is the white $999 MacBook.2

That the iPhone — or specifically its software touchscreen keyboard — does not appeal to everyone is not a problem. Nothing appeals to everyone. Even if you try to make something that appeals to everyone by adding every single clamored-for feature, you wind up with something like Windows that does not appeal to people with a taste for the elegant and refined.

  1. At least this is true for English speakers. A big part of the iPhone keyboard’s success stems from its auto-correct feature. Anecdotal reports from DF readers suggest that it doesn’t work as well with languages like French, where there are more words that differ by just one character (or by mere accent marks). What hurts the iPhone in such languages is that its auto-correct feature doesn’t offer a list of suggestions, but rather just one. It’s sort of like if Google only offered one search result — super-convenient if that’s the one you’re looking for, useless if it isn’t. ↩︎

  2. Update: Here are the ones I overlooked: the Apple Remote and the wireless keyboard and mouse. But, still, they’re down to just one computer with a removable battery. ↩︎