The smartphone’s physical keyboard makes a last stand


The Wall St. Journal today covers two different physical keyboard attachments for iPhone, the $100 (aptly-named?) ‘Typo’ and the Solomatrix Spike. The TL;DR is that both of these keyboards are OK (Joanna Stern seems to prefer the Typo) but have fatal flaws that push them towards edge cases – people who’ve recently just shifted away from a Blackberry, have sausage fingers, or suffer from some other problem with getting data into their phone via a screen.

Their real problem is that iOS on the iPhone isn’t designed for a physical keyboard. It is designed to flip back and forth, from landscape to portrait depending on the use and the app. It was designed from the very beginning to be agile and portable and with that portability, the ultimate sacrifice was made to the smartphone physical keyboard.

To this day, I don’t think I am faster at typing and multitasking  on an iPhone as I was on the physical keyboard of the 2007 Danger Sidekick that it replaced. But the wealth of other keyboard options and the ability to be both portrait and landscape more than make up for the speed.

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The market has proved I’m not alone in this assumption. There were plenty of Android phones with physical keyboards that tried to capitalize on defecting Blackberry users. None of them succeeded. Even BlackBerry these days seems to be putting more of its remaining weight behind its software keyboard phones.

So what’s going to happen to those remaining people who still want a physical keyboards?

It’s always effective to go to a Steve  Jobs quote in times like these and he’s got a good one about getting people to use keyboards. 

And so, it turns out people want keyboards. I mean, when I started in this business one of the biggest challenges was that people couldn’t type. And one day we realized that death would eventually take care of this. And so, people know how to type now. And if you do email of any volume, you gotta have a keyboard.

Jobs was talking about “non-typists” fading away but ironically, this extinction will also happen to phone keyboards themselves. Software like Apple’s predictive text, Swype, Swiftkey and many others will continue to improve on the soft keyboards to the point where even the die hard physical keyboard folks will have to concede defeat (or they will die off, I guess).

In fact, I think if Siri gets more accurate or Google Now continues to improve and gets itself in front of many more eyes, even soft keyboards will start to go from a necessity, to a “nice to have,” to the same kind of nostalgic option as those iPhone physical keyboards  from Typo and the Solomatrix above.

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  1. nelmat - 9 years ago

    It’s funny how some people simply don’t ‘get it’. A physical keyboard with keys the size of pinheads? Why would anyone want this or think it’s an improvement over an adaptive touchscreen keyboard?

    It’s a strange percentage of users who refuse to accept change and move on. Similar to those people who insist on turning their tablets into laptop computers (with keyboard cases) and give cry of ‘we need USB ports’, along with the optical drive brigade. There are even people who want to plug in a mouse to their tablet!

    For serious typing, pair a bluetooth keyboard. But why would anyone need to do serious amounts of typing on a phone?

    These products should be dead in the water, but I’m sure that lots of middle aged businessmen who still run windows XP on their main work machine will snap these up.

    • frankman91 - 9 years ago

      Well said sir.

      I am not big on tablets because I like the form factor of an upright screen with keyboard / track-pad over a flat laying screen, but because of that I use laptops, not tablets. I don’t understand why people pay for tablets and try and make them back in to laptops with all these after-thought products.

      That product shown above is one of the worst add-on accessories I have ever seen. How small must those keys be to fit a 10 key row across the width of an iphone HAHA.

  2. Court Kizer - 9 years ago

    Why are we acting like this is something new? I had a physical keyboard for my iPhone 4s that was much better landscape form factor.

    Why no mention of the fact that many cases have offered keyboards before this one?

  3. Kevin Hancox - 9 years ago

    I don’t get the keyboard need, i very rarely use the soft keyboard either, i think siri is more than capable of doing 99% of everything you do on a keyboard and most times more accurately as well, i use it for just about everything including google searches in safari now…

  4. greenbelt2csp - 9 years ago

    It took some time, but I’m now faster on an iPhone keyboard than I was on a tiny blackberry-type. The “key” for me was to alter my approach. Physical (tiny) keyboards made you slide your fingers around to get to other keys, now I just hover my thumbs over the soft keys and pretend they are like typewriter arms, wack and back up, wack and back up, never move your thumb laterally, up at an angle, down at an angle . Start slowly, then after some time and practice it sounds a lot like a drum roll. Never stop for mistakes, keep the momentum, then fix before sending.

  5. Erik Koppany - 9 years ago

    I have at least 10 smartphones and tablets. To this day, nothing beats a Blackberry 9900 when you are on the move (literally) and try to type something and carry the phone at the same time. Especially if you don’t write in English! Hence I keep using the BB as my txt machine… Yes, i have an ipod, the One, Xperia, Nexus and Galaxy…. Nothing comes close…

  6. Erik Koppany - 9 years ago

    You cant hold a touchscreen phone by the screen as it registers as a touch… With a physical keyboard you can do that.

  7. Richard William Holman - 9 years ago

    I am one of those middle aged men that can not get on with a touch screen, I would like a smartphone with wifi with a hard keyboard but I don not want tiny little keys. What I do want is the once standard phone keyboard which I can use without looking, in the dark or without hunting for my reading glasses.

  8. Salman A - 9 years ago

    I need a physical keyboard with decent-sized keys. Have you ever tried making a realy-call using a virtual keyboard? While it can be done, it is quite difficult; and, you are more likely to make typos. I have a decent Android, but I can’t stand it’s virtual keyboard. I also cannot speak well enough to use my phone’s voice commands (I don’t know if they can “type” or not). I tried the Sidekick-tiny keys. I hope Blackberry stablizes this year. I only use a few APPs, not having Android or iOS will not make a difference for me.

  9. Mustafa Junior Enver - 9 years ago

    A physical Keyboard does make sense to a lot of people.
    App/browser issue where when touching in a text box the keyboard fail’s to pop up.
    having a tab buttons and arrows to navigate and alter text when having a fat finger day.
    on screen keyboards take up screen real-estate (up to 50% in some cases)
    Key size is not an issue when discussing a landscape physical keyboard as you potentially have the full height of the phone and up to 75% of the width which is far more then an onscreen keyboard.
    Qwerty landscape sliders with tilt give us a “stand capability”. I’ve had to buy a specific case to give this function back to me.
    modernize the touch pro 2 and give it to us. best qwerty phone ever.


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