Virtual Keyboards, Real Keyboards

Daring Fireball has a neat essay on the Palm Pre. It's worth reading, but I do disagree with Gruber's take on the Palm's physical keyboard. I think a physical keyboard is a huge advantage, especially for people who currently own "normal" phones1.

The first point he makes is this:

Normal people aren't planning to do much typing on their new smartphone.

I guess that may be true in the United States, but it's not true as a general rule. In Europe, writing text messages is probably the most common cell phone activity, even more common than making actual phone calls. People often write dozens or hundreds of text messages each day. Whenever somebody asks to play around with my iPhone, writing text is the first thing they try.

And their first impressions are generally poor. The iPhone keyboard gets better as you get used to it, but at first, it seems impossible to type quickly and correctly - especially if you're using a language the iPhone can't auto-correct, or can't auto-correct well2.

Smartphones with physical keyboards, on the other hand, are immediately usable. First impressions are generally positive.

He then writes:

Any smartphone QWERTY keyboard, software or hardware, is going to be better than what most people are used to, which is pecking things out on a phone with a 0-9 numeric keypad.

Again, this may be true in the United States, but at least in Europe, people are quick cellphone typers. In fact, I'm pretty sure most of my friends type almost or about as quickly on their feature phones as I type on my iPhone.

Almost all phones have physical keys. Going from a feature phone to a smartphone with a physical keyboard is a small cognitive step. It seems obvious to most people that a full keyboard would work better, and first impressions generally confirm this.

Going from a feature phone to an iPhone, on the other hand, is a bigger step. People are out of their comfort zone when they have no physical keys, and first impressions generally confirm their doubts.

Of course, the Palm Pre won't be available in Europe for quite some time, and Gruber's analysis may be correct for the United States.

As a side note, I would assume that the reason why Apple went with an on-screen keyboard is not that they thought it afforded a better typing experience than a physical keyboard. They went with the on-screen keyboard because they thought the trade-offs were worth it.

Further Reading

Keith Lang speculates that Apple went with a virtual keyboard to have an upgrade path to new, more advanced input systems. Physical keyboards are immutable, while virtual keyboards could theoretically be replaced with better input mechanisms. Although I guess cell phones with a physical keyboard and a reasonably-sized screen (like the Pre) could support such improved input mechanisms, too.

  1. i.e. non-smart phones. ↩︎

  2. The spelling inconsistencies in the English language actually help here, since similar words are often spelled differently. French and German have a lot of words that sound similarly and are also spelled similarly, which makes it harder for the iPhone to figure out what exactly you're typing. Also, a lot of German words can be typed with or without an umlaut (leading to a different meaning), so you can't simply trust the iPhone to insert the proper umlauts. ↩︎

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