I see the disturbing trend of moving away from keyboards as input devices — and I’m talking about a real, physical keyboard. This isn’t a matter of one decision that kills the keyboard, but an aggregate that is slowly changing the landscape. If you blink, you’ll miss it. We will not find ourselves in a world without keyboards, but in one where most of the available keyboards suck.
Rise of the Virtual Keyboard Generation
Tablets are great for screwing around, but when you want to get real work done in a reasonable amount of time, you grab a physical keyboard. In this scenario I don’t see the problem being those in the workforce going away from keyboards; it’s how the younger generations are learning to interact with technology that is troubling. The touchscreen is baby’s first computer. Families gather and the kids are handed their parent’s tablets while the grown-ups watch the game. More and more schools are outfitting classrooms with tablets, and for this I’m an advocate. Getting kids involved early in technology is imperative; knowledge evolves much more rapidly than printed textbooks. The tablet is a powerful tool in both of these areas. But most of the screen time kids get is with touchscreens and no physical keyboard.
How much time are K-12 kids spending in front of a physical keyboard? In the United States, if keyboard (typing) classes exist at all in a public school’s curriculum they’re usually only one-semester. Students who spend half of Elementary school using a tablet, and just one semester at a keyboard, are bound to prefer touchscreen-based entry over a physical keyboard.
We’ve already seen a strong push into touch-screens on laptops as the tablet market has grown. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Think of the computer mouse, it didn’t replace the keyboard, but augmented it and now is seen as a tool that itself is a necessity.
The scenario I hope I never see is laptop companies deciding that the market isn’t demanding keyboards at a high enough rate to make them standard. If you’re already manufacturing a touch-screen on your newest laptop, there’s huge cost savings to getting rid of all those keys.
I know what you’re thinking… just get an external keyboard. Most of the die-hard iPad users who I know have a Bluetooth keyboard built into the case so that they can get the typing work done when they need to. These keyboards are better than a virtual one, but are lacking compared to a proper physical keyboard. Call me old-fashioned but this is not the direction I want to see the computer industry enter.
Even if the keyboard isn’t eliminated, I find the erosion of keyboard quality to be troubling. My travel machine is an exquisite Acer C720 Chromebook (4GB, 128GB SSD, matte screen for those who care). I chroot into Linux thanks to the wonderful Open Source project: Crouton. It does pretty much everything I need and I’m quite happy with it — except for the keyboard.
I previously owned the C710 which has a full keyboard. In the 1-generation-newer C720 they have relegated the pgup, pgdn, home, end, and del keys as hotkey-remappings. The ChromeOS specific keys across the top don’t even have enough to be remapped as all of the F-keys.
Of course I say “full keyboard” when talking about the C710 and yet I often grind my teeth over the missing 10-key numpad. The point is, we’re losing keys through keyboard erosion that affects productivity.
Keyboard Education Ebbs and Flows
All is not lost, and that’s part of why I’m writing this
rant well-researched opinion article. Computer literacy has been solidly linked to more access to better job opportunities. Going along with this, in the US the Common-Core requirements for schools are spurring computer literacy programs because testing is happening not on paper, not on tablets, but on real computers. Can you imaging writing a test on paper if you only held a pencil for one semester in your first six years of school? That’s the scenario some students face with computer-based testing.
Of course if you look closely in those pictures you’ll see the computers those schools are using are Acer C720 Chromebooks — part of the reason I raked its keyboard over the coals in the previous section. Still, what I’m looking for is a common consensus that typing skills are a necessary part of education. So I’ll take what keyboard time I can get for our students.
You can’t talk about this issue without trying to quantify the differences, but that actually turns out pretty hard to do. There are a lot of factors at play here. For instance, typing speed isn’t the only thing to consider, there is also user satisfaction which is heavily influenced by personal preference. So one set of data doesn’t rule them all. However, I do know of a few studies that I can loosely and unscientifically link together to make my point.
A research team compared iPad virtual keyboard typing to Netbook typing (yeah, it’s from 2010). It showed that the Netbook typing was faster but makes a point that at that time physical keyboards were the most familiar to people. Think about all the kids right now blazing through petabytes of text messages from tiny, cheap, smartphones right now. A real race would need to involve those type of practiced skills. There is data available that shows if you have to type on a virtual keyboard, bigger is much better.
I would also contest that typing on a tablet’s virtual keyboard in landscape mode sucks because you eat up so much screen real estate. So people tend to opt for a thin keyboard that is in the cover for the iPad. There’s a study for that as well which compares physical keyboards with thin ones meant for tablets. The gist is that the thicker the better. Haptic feedback of full keys is a win there.
Perhaps I’m Crying Wolf
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Perhaps those who need a keyboard — the programmers, writers, and data entry specialists of the world — will find their way to a quality keyboard and develop the skills they need to use it. Even on our own Hackaday crew we have people who swear by their hardware. I only have eyes for a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic, while [Brian Benchoff] will argue dusk till dawn for his Torpres and MX Blues. Still, I think waiting too long to master the finest interface tool ever built by man puts our kids at a disadvantage. And I want to know that any computer my heart desires comes standard with a keyboard worth using.
What do you think? Are we raising legions of techno-adjusted hackers who will have no real touch-typing skills? Will technology rise up and replace the physical keyboard with something better? Or do we need to spread the gospel of the Church of Keyboard Input? Join the discussion in the comments below.