The Future (or Past) of Mobile Keyboarding

Okay, the title is bad, I’ll admit. I’ll start writing better titles when I stop having to write research papers. But I digress.

In my last post I discussed an alternative keyboard method called Dvorak, where keys on the keyboard were arranged to be more efficient. If you’d like to read more about it, click “Home” up there ↑ and scroll right down to it. I’ll wait for you up here.

This time I wanted to talk about mobile text input, which has gone through multiple phases recently, as mobile devices have gone through an incredible number of transformations in the past few years. If you’ve been alive for more than ten years, you’ve more than likely seen one of these:

This is a Motorola Razr, and was one of the most popular phones around the time that it came out, despite it having an awful keypad. It wasn’t a terrible phone otherwise, but the important thing to note is its lack of buttons or touchscreen. These old, pre-smartphone phones (I like to call them “dumb” phones) were nearly ubiquitous, even though they weren’t all that useful for anything for calls and for texting.

There were two primary input methods on these devices, represented with “Abc” or “T9.” The “Abc” input method (I have no idea what it’s called) was very simple, but required you to push a single key multiple times to get the letter that you wanted, and if you accidentally pushed the key too many times, you would have to start over. The main folly with this input method was that the letter “S,” which is one of the most commonly-occuring letters in the English language, requires a person to push the 7 key four times to be printed. The other problem with this was that words with letters on the same key or double letters (particularly double S) takes an incredible amount of time to write, slowing down everything for everybody. Try writing “Mississippi.”

T9, on the other hand, is predictive text. Here’s how it works: each key has a few letters on it, and if you’re looking for a letter that’s on a specific key, you only need to hit it once. For example, “and” is written with the keys 263. Push that and the phone will predict the word for you. It’s incredibly simple and incredibly fast.

When smarter devices started rolling out (I’m talking Blackberries and Palm here), they came out with full-button QWERTY keyboards, yet they were compact enough to fit in your pocket. This means that the buttons on the keyboard were incredibly small; sometimes they were so small that you could push six or seven of them with one finger at once. And then for some inexplicable reason, when companies made the choice over to full-length touch screens, they decided to follow the trend of making the QWERTY keyboard standard–on touchscreen, no less.

I don’t know about you, but I make a lot more mistakes on my touchscreen keyboard than I ever would have on my full-sized keyboard. The buttons are too small and there’s no haptic feedback to tell me where the F and J keys are or even if I’ve touched between the keys. This also discounts the fact that a smartphone is so small that you have to type with just two thumbs, rather than all of your fingers (which, inevitably, leaves tablets in this weird gray area in between).

People have come up with a solution to this problem, called Swype. Swype allows you to kinda just wave your finger across the screen and hope for the right word to come out. The problem with Swype is that if your phone is too large (and your hands are too small), then you’ll have a hard time creating words since you aren’t allowed to lift your finger during the word’s input.

Maybe I’m silly, but I propose we go back to using T9. Instead of the phone emulating a QWERTY keyboard with tiny keys, it can emulate a nine-button key pad where all the buttons are large enough to reduce errors. You can even text without looking, guessing the location of the button on-screen. Maybe we can combine T9 with Swype input if people get even more lazy.

We should be working harder to solve problems by finding better and efficient solutions through innovation, rather than addressing those same problems by reverting back to what people know but doesn’t make sense.

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The Future of Keyboarding

If you’ve seen me and used my phone recently, you probably know what this post is going to be about.

Let me turn your world sideways for a second. That’s kinda like where I turn your world upside down but have to stop halfway because whatever I’ve said isn’t all that exciting.

The QWERTY keyboard layout is archaic and should be changed.

If you’re familiar with some basic keyboarding history, you should know why the QWERTY keyboard layout is used: it was created back in the days when we still used typewriters and it was designed to set the most common letters of the English letter apart from one another. Doing this would prevent the strikers to come out and colliding with each other, essentially causing a jam, whenever a typist was typing especially quickly.

Along came the creation of the Dvorak keyboard, named after its creator (pronounced deh-VOH-rack, contrary to the way you pronounce the composer’s name… which inevitably bothers me). The Dvorak keyboard had the opposite design goal as the QWERTY keyboard: to put all of the English language’s most common letters right next to each other and on the home row. The most common vowels and consonants are under different hands, which means that most words can be written by using fingers on alternating hands.

dvorak[1]

This is a stark constrast to many words written on the QWERTY keyboard. There are common letters on the top row, and stretching your hand feels natural. But there are some pretty common letters on the bottom row, and scrunching up your hand definitely does not feel comfortable, especially when you’re learning to type for the first time.

By moving the most common letters next to each other, Dvorak touted that you could achieve a much higher typing speed and reduce hand fatigue in the process.

So if the Dvorak keyboard is so great, why hasn’t it caught on yet?

Through testing by Dvorak himself while he was still alive, results showed that typing speed only increased by an average of 5%. By this time, the QWERTY keyboard was already nearly ubiquitous and companies weren’t willing to dish out the money to retrain their employees for such a small increase. On top of this, the claim that the keyboard decreases hand stress was was virtually unprovable, and likely didn’t matter for anyone who didn’t spend eight hours a day typing at 90-100wpm anyway.

However, I think we should still make the transition. Now before you ask, yes, I have been using the Dvorak keyboard layout. In fact, I wrote this entire post using Dvorak. And, yes, it took me a long time.

I’ve been using this layout on my phone for about two months now, which defeats the purpose, but I also think we shouldn’t be using the QWERTY layout on cell phones, either.

Tune in next time for my opinions on that.

Set up Dvorak on your computer.