What everyone gets wrong about touchscreen keyboards

Think you’ll hate laptops with screens instead of keyboards? Here are 5 reasons why you’ll love them.

closeup of retro typewriter key with the letter B for blog

I’ve got good news and bad news about the future of laptops.

The bad news: We’re all getting laptops that have a touchscreen on the bottom instead of a keyboard. I know. You hate the idea. That’s why it’s the bad news.

The good news is that these touchscreen keyboards won’t look, act or work the way you think they will. In fact, I think you’ll love these devices. That’s why it’s the good news.

At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), which it said this week will take place starting June 4 in San Jose, the company could announce an all-screen keyboard for the iPad — a replacement for the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard — and possibly a two-screen laptop.

But even if it doesn’t, I believe Apple and other major laptop makers will evolve toward two-screen laptops over the next three years.

5 reasons why two-screen laptops will be better than you think

I get it. You love typing on a real keyboard. So do I.

In fact, I think just about everyone who’s heard about this idea hates it.

But people are thinking about today’s on-screen keyboards and today’s laptops, powered by today’s technology.

They’re not thinking about technology they haven’t seen or other ways of working with a device they haven’t tried.

Another reason for the opposition is that two-screen laptops aren’t new. We’ve seen the idea tried in the past ten years in the form of Canova’s Dual-Screen Laptop, the Acer Iconia 6120 Dual Touchscreen Laptop, the Toshiba libretto W105-L251 7-Inch Dual Touchscreen Laptop and others.

These devices were unpleasant to use and were rejected by laptop buyers.

Future two-screen laptops will be the opposite.

Here are five reasons why you’ll love two-screen laptops.

1. Touchscreen keyboards will feel like physical keyboards.

Apple has been filing patents in this category for years. Two more Apple dual-screen laptop patent applications have been published in the past three weeks.

As mere patent applications, they don’t reveal Apple’s actual plans. However, they do serve as an example of how companies want to use advanced technology to make all-screen keyboards far more appealing.

The most recent patent details different methods for making an on-screen keyboard feel like a physical one.

apple keyboard patent U.S. Patent Office

Apple’s most recent two-screen laptop patent shows how flexible displays will enable on-screen keyboards with raised keys that can be physically pressed.

Apple achieves this in part by using a flexible display, with a keyboard-like structure underneath. The on-screen keyboard would actually have key travel. In other words, it would be a hybrid of an on-screen keyboard and a physical keyboard.

The “virtual” keys can be physically pressed, and they can also raise bumps on the screen when the virtual keyboard is on the screens. You’ll be able to feel where the keys are before you press them.

It also describes the use of next-generation haptics that vibrate keys when they’re pressed with the simulated feeling of a physical keyboard. No doubt sound would be added as well to further simulate the experience of using a physical keyboard.

Haptics can be convincing.

Apple has for three years sold MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops that feature a “Force Touch” trackpad. Apple uses a “Taptic engine” (Apple’s branded haptic part) and electromagnets to simulate physical movement and trackpad clicking.

A majority of users no doubt believe this trackpad moves, tilts and clicks. But it doesn’t move at all. Apple is using haptics to simulate movement.

It can do the same thing with an on-screen keyboard, according to the patent application.

Next-generation touchscreen laptop keyboards will have keys you can feel, press and hear.

2. Sometimes you don’t need a keyboard.

Steve Jobs detailed the benefits of replacing physical keyboards with virtual ones in his 2007 introduction of the iPhone. The main benefits, of course, are that you get more screen real estate and also more flexible interface options.

Apple’s patents show an iTunes and Apple Music interface that replaces the on-screen keyboard with music controls, such as an equalizer, when one of these applications is running.

It’s easy also to imagine what kind of interfaces third-party developers could build: turntables for DJs, drawing pads for illustrators, advanced calculator keyboards for eggheads, speech notes for business presentations and game-specific game controls for games.

During videoconferences, the keyboard could have chat windows and other data so the meeting could be full-screen.

Musical applications such as Apple’s own Garage Band could get piano keyboards, drum kits, strings and more on the bottom of the screen.

The most recent patent shows how the bottom screen can also display application-specific content or interfaces but instantly turn into a keyboard when you place your hands on it.

I mentioned at the top that I think Apple’s first all-screen keyboard might be an even smarter iPad Pro Smart Keyboard than the company currently sells. Apple’s recent patent specifies an all-screen version for iPad. I also said it might announce a two-screen laptop.

It would make sense for Apple to announce all-screen iPad keyboards and two-screen laptops at a developer event, because the value of this kind of laptop lies in what third-party developers do with them. The main benefit is custom, application-specific interfaces. So when Apple starts working on the manufacturing of such devices, it makes sense that we’ll hear about it in advance at a developer event so applications will be ready when they ship the hardware.

Custom software keyboards, by the way, might prove especially powerful for enterprises that are doing in-house development of custom apps.

There’s even a security element to this scenario. Locking down a system to reduce the attack surface might actually involve the removal or addition of keyboard interface options.

3. A.I. will augment your typing

As artificial intelligence (A.I.) evolves and is intelligently applied to future versions of Autocorrect, you’ll be able to get away with an increasing number of errors that will be accurately and instantly fixed. Browser plugins such as Grammarly show how writing can be improved with A.I. as you type.

The frustration of using today’s on-screen keyboards will be replaced with the thrill of quickly typing on-screen without leaving errors behind.

4. Voice input and A.I. will reduce your typing

While dual-screen laptops will enable countless new options, the centrality of keyboards to our work will decline. Over time, we’ll get used to talking to our virtual assistants, and their agency will extend to the typing we do.

Instead of sending and specifically wording an email, we’ll be able to talk and tell the assistant our intention and let A.I. do the actual crafting of the email. In fact, this is how business used to work when executives had secretaries. They didn’t type anything. They talked, and an assistant did the writing.

A new Chrome extension that works with Gmail shipped this week that hints at the future of automated writing. Called EasyEmail, the extension uses machine learning to scan your previous writing and imitate your writing style. Then, when you’re writing an email, EasyEmail guesses what you’re going to write and offers those guesses as options to select. It often guesses entire sentences after you type the first word.

EasyEmail is just an example of what’s emerging for automated writing.

A.I. predictive writing will reduce the amount of typing we’ll do.

5. You’ll still be able to use a physical keyboard as a peripheral

Journalists and developers tend to be the most vocal critics and haters of the two-screen concept. But they should be the most enthusiastic.

When doing serious writing or coding, you’ll always be able to choose any keyboard on the market and use it as a peripheral to your laptop.

While you’re not using the bottom screen keyboard, that screen can be put to use displaying notes or any other content. For a writer, for example, having your prose on top and notes and resources on bottom is a better way to write. And developers can never get enough screen real estate while coding.

In other words, a laptop without a physical keyboard does not mean you can’t use a physical keyboard. It simply means you have more keyboard choice and more screen real estate.

Why two-screen laptops are inevitable

Sooner or later, two-screen laptops are going to happen.

One mechanism for this change is generational. Members of the so-called iGen generation, born between 1995 and 2012, have never known a time before smartphones. People now entering the workforce are iGens. They live on their phones, are more comfortable typing on a smartphone screen than a laptop physical screen, and will easily adapt to using two-screen laptops and on-screen keyboards at work.

Every year, people more comfortable with physical keyboards will retire, and those who prefer screen keyboards will enter the workforce.

But the biggest driver will be competitive advantage.

In general, companies with the most advanced technologies benefit from shifting buyer expectations to products that require those advanced technologies. This increases barriers to entry by smaller competitors.

After all, any two-bit, third-rate, bargain-basement company can build a mechanical keyboard. But only the top companies such as Apple, Google and a few others will be able to combine patented actuators, patented haptics and advanced A.I. to construct a keyboard. The main companies we buy laptops from have a powerful incentive to move into two-screen laptops.

And finally, software is eating the world. As a rule of technological advancement, physical contraptions are generally replaced by software versions when the technology is ready.

And guess what? It’s ready.

Are you?

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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