Keyboards As Legacy Devices

One of the common arguments against the tablets as productivity devices, is that writing is an essential part of “content creation” and that long-form writing necessitates a keyboard.

I have strongly questioned the validity of both these assertions. I do not think that writing is an essential part of “content creation”, nor do I think that long-form writing needs a keyboard. Here I will focus on the second assertion and illustrate how the new generation might consider keyboards as legacy I/O.

Japanese students are faster with smartphones than with keyboards

A Japanese article in ITMedia tested how fast 16 Japanese students could enter text with smartphones and with PCs. The author found that many students could type up to 2x faster on smartphones, and that the fastest smartphone typer was faster than the fastest PC typer. They also found that the two students who were faster on a PC were using QWERTY keyboards on smartphone, instead of the flick input.

If we consider the comfortability of long-form text entry to be an essential part of a “content creation” device, then at least for the Japanese youth, smartphones are better than PCs.

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QWERTY is holding back Western languages

One might think that the above only applies to non-Western languages. However, I believe that we can also extend this argument to Western languages as well.

The issue is that Western language users still are using the inefficient and legacy QWERTY keyboard layout instead of something that has been designed for and optimised for smartphones (or even PCs for that matter). If Western users started to use a keyboard layout that was designed for smartphones, then maybe they wouldn’t need hacks like Swype to type faster. It is possible that what is holding tablet text entry behind is not the lack of a physical keyboard, but the lack of new ideas and the unwillingness to try a new input method.

Implications for the future

There is a possibility that the legacy of QWERTY keyboards is holding back innovation. The physical keyboards that Blackberry insisted on, prevented them from pioneering phones that had large touch-screen displays. The insistence on physical keyboards is probably a huge factor in keeping US schools from embracing the tablet form-factor (and is helping float the Chromebook market). If this continues, then it is very likely that innovation in the next wave of “content creation”, if it is to happen on tablets, will not come from QWERTY countries, but from non-Western language ones.

I see physical keyboards as legacy devices. They are slowing down innovation. Instead of discussing whether future “content creation” devices should have keyboards (like the 2-in-1 form factor), the real discussion should be how to create a better keyboard layout that is completely free of the century-old typewriter QWERTY legacy.

Appendix: About Flick Input

Flick input uses a keyboard like the one shown in the image below. There are 12 light grey keys that are used to enter characters. The Japanese phonetic writing system uses roughly 50 characters which is much more than the 12 grey keys. However, when you press one of the grey keys, you are presented with 5 different options. Flicking in the direction of any of these keys allows you to select one of these (no flicking selects the centre one). Therefore, from the 12 light grey keys, you can generate 12 x 6 = 60 different characters. Proficient users will memorise the flick direction, and will not need to wait for the options to appear on the screen. Instead, they will simply put their finger on any of the keys and immediately flick in the appropriate direction.

Since three Japanese characters contains about as much information as a single English word, you can see how efficient Flick input can be. Add the fact that the keys are much larger (fewer mistakes) and can comfortably be accessed with a single hand, and you can understand why Japanese youth are so fast with this.

Similar concepts are available for Western languages like MessagEase. One problem for Western languages may be that QWERTY is bad but not hurting enough to convince people to learn a new keyboard layout.

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Xiaomi Rethink

No so long ago, it was trendy to argue that Xiaomi was the next Apple, or at least a disrupter to the traditional hardware-based vendor model of which Samsung was the main incumbent. 

However, we now see Xiaomi losing market share, even in their home market of China. What happened?

The main arguments around Xiaomi were;

  1. They copy Apple and since Apple is a very aspirational brand, the Chinese flocked to Xiaomi. 
  2. They sell good quality and performance smartphones for a very affordable price. 
  3. They have a distinct UI, which makes their phones look much closer to Apple than their competitors. Furthermore, their UI is good and differentiates their products in a positive way. 
  4. They monetise on services, and that is why they can afford to not make profits on hardware. 

Most pundits were unanimously positive about the prospects for Xiaomi, at least in their home market. So what went wrong, or putting the blame on the pundit’s side, how did they get their predictions so wrong?

Fortune reported that 

Xiaomi, facing flattening revenues, launched efforts to bounce back with the opening of new retail outlets across China

IDC reported that;

In the past, Xiaomi started the trend of selling its phones online and other vendors soon followed suit and created their own online brand. After vendors witnessed OPPO’s success with its R9, they also started riding on the trend of hiring celebrity endorsers to represent their brand and appeal more to the young crowd.

Now, since I’ve started this post by hinting that the pundits were wrong, I have no intention of taking Fortune’s and IDC’s reports at face value. However, it is still notable how the argument has completely moved away from the software and services angle, and is now completely about marketing. 

The way it looks now is;

  1. Anybody can copy Apple given China’s hardware prowess. 
  2. Any major Chinese vendor can make good phones at affordable prices. 
  3. Distinct UI was not really a differentiator. 
  4. Services didn’t generate nearly enough revenue to allow Xiaomi to sell their phones at meaningfully lower prices. They made their profits on hardware
  5. Xiaomi’s strength was actually in their marketing tactics. However, like many other marketing stunts, it was just a fad. Losing their marketing power means losing almost everything. 

In general, tech pundits have a strong tendency to underestimate sales & marketing, and how it defines undifferentiated markets more forcefully than any new features can. Silicon Valley pundits assumed that services-based features and business models would define the smartphone market after hardware maturation. This is was not the case. It is likely that sales, marketing & distribution will be much more powerful.