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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  • obarthelemy

    Apart from swipes and prediction, there have been attempts to improve on traditional QWERTY on smartphones. The most successful effort is probably Minuum (see picture), though after rave early reviews, I haven’t heard of them in a while. It’s based on top-notch prediction that allows it to scrunch up the keyboard into a single row and guess what you’re writing.
    I bought it, it works well. But indeed, I still type mostly on a PC, so weird keyboards, however more efficient, mostly throw me off. They only support alphabetic languages.

    • Apart from QWERY keyboards not hurting enough on Western languages, the other issue is probably that neither Apple nor Google have made alternative keyboard layouts the default.

      Flick input is the default Japanese entry method on both iOS and Android. I have read that a similar method is popular for Chinese as well.

  • obarthelemy

    New stuff from Lenovo: a “laptop” with a flat “keyboard”, usable as a keyboard or a drawing/writing surface (including with a sheet of paper on top of it). I’m intrigued.

    http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2016/08/lenovos-new-yoga-book-is-a-360-degree-laptop-without-the-keyboard/

    “Lenovo insists that the virtual keyboard is every bit as fast and accurate as a physical one, albeit with a bit of training required: under-25s can get up to speed in as little as 40 minutes, with older users apparently taking a couple of hours. Our experience with the Microsoft Touch Cover suggests that this isn’t completely outlandish”

    • From my perspective and from the perspective of the article that I wrote, the Lenovo flat keyboard is still 100% legacy. That is, unless it can change the keyboard layout in a flexible way, it cannot be the hardware that would support innovative new ways to enter text. If it still forces a fixed QWERTY layout, then it is no better than a regular keyboard in any way.