Will touch screens kill the keyboard?

Typing more than a few sentences on the virtual keyboard of an iPad or other tablet is a pain in the neck. That experience is about to get a whole lot better.

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In some ways a touch screen is a better interface than a keyboard, says Scott Birnbaum, vice president of LCD business at Samsung, touting the company's use of Swype technology on its Galaxy S smartphone and Galaxy Tab tablet. "Instead of pushing a button to get a letter, you gesture with a finger," he says. "To type hello you move your finger from the H to the E and then circle around the L for two L's" and end on the O, he says. "Now that I've used Swype, I'll never go back to a keyboard."

Watch this video to see how Swype works.

But Bosley, who worked on HP's original touch-screen technology in 2007, is skeptical. "To me, Swype is just using a keyboard in a more efficient way," he says. While users like cool gestures like pinch and swipe, he says consumers' appetites for more sophisticated gesture libraries will be severely limited. There's a reason why we're not still writing in shorthand, he says: "The typewriter was easier and less tiring."

Mike McSherry, CEO of Swype, says gesture languages complement keyboards, but aren't substitutes for them. "It's not realistic to expect the average user to learn more than a couple-dozen gestures," he says, whereas people tend to use a vocabulary of over 60,000 English words.

Gestures, he says, will stick to the more traditional role of device navigation and selection metaphors, such as turning a page or launching an application. "Like voice input, gestures complement keyboard usage activity but will not replace the need for keyboard text entry."

On the other hand, touch screens offer features that mechanical ones don't, such as real-time error correction and word prediction. And "touch-screen keyboards will add new functions, such as overlays to show images or other information and [support for] handwriting, signatures, etc., which the traditional keyboard can't offer," says DisplaySearch's Colegrove.

A generational thing

Total replacement of the physical keyboard is achievable, Immersion's Sheehan insists. But, he asks, "Is that a relevant question? Children who have grown up with touch-screen keypads don't distinguish the difference. They just deal with it."

Rolltop concept laptop

Many concept laptop designs feature virtual keyboards. The Rolltop shown here is designed to roll up around a cylinder for travel.

Click to view larger image.

Hsu sees the same trend. Early on, Synaptics thought that text entry was a big problem on mobile phones that had simple numeric keypads, and proposed a full QWERTY keyboard solution. It went nowhere. Manufacturers, who knew their customers, laughed off the idea.

"An entire generation of handset users were quite comfortable with doing texting on a 12-key keypad," Hsu says. "As we approached developers, they said, 'That's a problem for the older generation.'"

Similarly, Hsu continues, "There's a perception among the older generations that grew up on keyboards that we would miss a keyboard. But as newer generations are raised on devices that have a gesture-based interface they just won't care," he says.

Bosley, for one, thinks younger users do want real keyboards on PCs -- and even on cell phones. "The things my kids asked for after they had a phone for a while was a phone with a fold-out QWERTY keyboard because they text a lot," he says. But some of the most popular smartphones, such as the iPhone and many Android phones, rely solely on virtual keyboards.

Even if virtual keyboards don't displace physical ones in all situations -- and they won't -- touch screens and haptics may change how we interact with a keyboard -- especially on tablets, says Hsu. "The biggest challenge will be for those of us who grew up with the keyboard to abandon interaction scenarios that are near and dear to our hearts, but not more usable."

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rmitch, or e-mail him at rmitchell@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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