Mike Elgan: How to fix the keyboard crisis

Mobile gadgets are supposed to get better and better. So why have their keyboards gotten worse?

Everything gets better, right? Cheaper. Faster. Smaller. This is especially true for the smallest devices -- cell phones, netbooks and e-book readers.

In the past 10 years, for example, cell phone processors, screens and antennas have undergone radical transformations for the better. Today's phone processors are vastly superior to desktop processors of a decade ago. Cell phone screens back then were ugly, blocky and usually monochrome. And remember pull-out antennas, and those blocky antennas that always stuck out the top of the phones?

But during this time, the innovation in keyboards that was gaining ground so furiously in the '90s somehow vanished. Nowadays, the keyboards available on small devices are pathetically bad compared with the breathtaking wonders of the previous decade.

Declining keyboard usability is especially weird when you consider that people are typing more than ever -- social networking, Twitter, blogging, e-mail. These online megatrends are based entirely on typing with a keyboard. Yet the industry doesn't innovate in this space anymore.

What happened?

The keyboard crisis

Most active mobile professionals own a netbook, carry a smartphone and have other small mobile devices with keyboards, such as e-book readers. Yet on just about every major device on the market in all these categories, the keyboards are hard to use and slow.

The worst offender by far is Apple, with its iPhone.

Let me be clear: I don't have a problem with Apple's decision to devote the entire front of the iPhone to screen real estate. I also have no problem with Apple's on-screen keyboard. I think the company designed and executed it pretty well. My problem is that Apple actively blocks, prevents and bans any other company from building a wireless iPhone-compatible keyboard -- and it hasn't built one itself.

Here is a company known for innovation that is using its considerable power over its ecosystem to guarantee that innovation cannot take place in precisely the area where users are screaming for it. All Apple would have to do is, well, nothing, and a hundred keyboard options would spontaneously emerge. Instead, Apple works hard to make sure no good keyboard is possible for its flagship phone.

The iPhone's competitors fail to impress as well. The Palm Pre has both a physical keyboard and a touch screen, but users generally report that the Pre keyboard isn't as good as those of the old Treos. BlackBerry keyboards have always been pretty good, but they haven't really gotten better or more usable in the past five years. There's a conspicuous lack of improvement in the many phones released by Nokia, LG, Samsung and the rest. Why did cell phone keyboard innovation stop?

The industry pretends that netbooks are something new. In fact, tiny laptops have existed for at least 16 years. The only innovative thing about today's netbooks is the price. They're so cheap, it seems, that all their usability problems are forgiven by some users. The worst thing about most of them is their keyboards. The rush to cram keys into the cheapest possible mini-laptop has resulted in a huge number of these devices gathering dust because they're so irritating to type on.

In the past two years, a real e-book market has emerged. The leader in the space is the Amazon Kindle, which came with several innovations, including a full QWERTY keyboard. Unfortunately, both the original rectangular-key keyboard and the circular-key keyboard of the latest generation are like keyboards from some horrible medical device from the '70s. Even hunting and pecking on a Kindle is an exercise in monklike patience.

Instead of designers doing what they're supposed to do and adapting physical user interfaces to us, they have instead trained us to adapt to their bad designs. We want the iPhone's sweet multi-touch user interface, so we accept its slow, awkward and error-prone on-screen keyboard. We want the netbooks' low prices, so we accept their low-quality keyboards. We want the Kindle's easy-reading screen and free wireless connection, so we accept its unusable keyboard.

The Golden Age of keyboard innovation

The IBM ThinkPad 701 series was released in 1995. The laptop was roughly the size of today's larger netbooks. When you opened the laptop lid, a full-size, desktop-quality keyboard magically snapped into place. If you missed the use of this laptop in the James Bond movie GoldenEye or in Blood Diamond, here's a TV commercial from 1995 -- that's 14 years old!

IBM sold the business to Lenovo some years ago. Presumably, Lenovo still holds the patent. If it can't invent anything, can't it at least dust off the designs for the 701 and build this fantastic keyboard into its IdeaPad series of netbooks?

HP came out with a tiny, 3-pound laptop in 1993 called the OmniBook 300 that had a keyboard vastly superior to any netbook keyboard available today. The keys were solid and responsive, and you could type at lightning speed, even though the total size of the device was far smaller than that of today's netbooks. As is happening with netbooks, the OmniBook line gradually evolved into generic irrelevance, and the keyboard got worse with each generation.

Another trend from the '90s was the use of fold-up pocketable keyboards that connected to cell phones via Bluetooth. Most of these had a little stand for propping up the phone. You can still buy these, and they're much better than trying to type on a phone keypad. They're available under brands like iGo Stowaway and Freedom. Palm sells a line of pocket keyboards for its old phones, but not its new ones. The trouble is, today's fold-up keyboards aren't much smaller, better or cheaper than the ones you could buy 10 years ago. Where's the innovation?

Everybody thought the incredible keyboard innovations of the '90s were just the beginning, not the end.

Still, there's hope

Though most netbook keyboards are horrible, at least two companies are trying. The first netbook with a great keyboard was the Sony Vaio P. Like all newer Sony Vaio laptops, the P sports those flat, MacBook-style keys that people either love or hate. The Vaio achieves its magic by being much wider but much shallower than regular netbooks. The P is great.

But almost nobody has one because they cost a small fortune. The product is listed as starting at $849, but that price will buy you an inadequate experience. A more reasonably configured system runs closer to $2,000, which is a bit much for the netbook market, where prices are now one-tenth that price.

This week, Fujitsu announced a great-looking Windows 7 netbook called the LifeBook UH900. The form factor is very similar to the Vaio P's, with a wide keyboard and smallish screen. It weighs about a pound. The UH900 has unexpected features like multi-touch, and also all the things you've come to expect, such as a built-in camera.

The big question is, however: How much will it cost? If Fujitsu can get the price of this thing below $600, it might have a winner on its hands, although rumors suggest it will cost much more than that.

My view is that these companies have the right idea. If you have to sacrifice either screen height or keyboard width to miniaturize a clamshell PC, I say sacrifice the screen. Most of us use these device to take notes, catch up on e-mail, and do a little blogging or writing. We're not editing video or watching Blu-ray movies. What we need is fast and comfortable typing. When we want a dazzling screen, we can use our full-size laptops or desktops.

The gadget industry has somehow convinced us that typing doesn't matter. It's time to fight back with our wallets. It's time we stop buying mobile gadgets with junk keyboards. Don't be dazzled by shiny displays and forget how important a good keyboard is. The industry can do better. They've done it before. And if the money flows toward better keyboards, we'll start seeing innovation again.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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