QWERTY phones: Thumbs-up or down?

Summary:QWERTY phones historically have been seen as devices for real work and productivity. Does that case still hold?

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Thumbs-up

or

Thumbs-down

Matthew Miller

Matthew Miller

Best Argument: Thumbs-up

80%
20%

Audience Favored: Thumbs-up (80%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

QWERTY for the foreseeable future

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: Following its introduction in 1873, QWERTY became the most popular keyboard layout. While it was designed to prevent typewriter typebars from jamming, its longevity beyond the mechanical typewriter was guaranteed when it was adopted as the layout for computer keyboards.

Although there are undoubtedly better systems that QWERTY available, ranging from different layouts to swipe systems to voice control, the advantage that QWERTY has over the competition is that it is ubiquitous, and almost anyone with even a passing familiarity with a computer can pick up the smartphone or tablet and start using it.

While QWERTY might be considered by some to be old, slow and inefficient, no other system can boast this level of usability, and this is why it migrated beyond the keyboard and into cutting-edge post-PC devices such as smartphones and tablets. And this guarantees that we will be seeing – and interacting with – QWERTY for the foreseeable future.

More efficient methods for text entry available

Matthew Miller: My smartphone life began with the Danger Hiptop (aka T-Mobile Sidekick) back in 2002 and I was hooked on hardware QWERTY keyboards ever since. I progressed through Palm Treos and Pres, BlackBerrys, various HTC devices, and more in my desire to always find and use devices with physical keyboards. I have now given up that lengthy affair and find no reason to go back.

The only high end smartphone today with a QWERTY is the new BlackBerry Q10, admittedly one of the best QWERTY devices ever made. However, you give up viewable display area and the ability to use advanced software keyboards while adding another hardware failure point.

QWERTY was designed for two-handed PC keyboards and is not a system optimized for the mobile phone. There are more efficient methods for text entry available today, such as Swype on Android, and the predictive keyboards today mean many people don't even tap on all the letters in words they enter on their phones.

Efficient QWERTY usage also requires two hands while software keyboards work well with one thumb or finger tapping or sliding away on the display. Folks, put your thumbs down and slide that index finger across your screen.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome back to our Great Debate series

    This week's debaters are Matthew Miller and Adrian Kingsley-Hughes. Are you ready?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Yes, I am

    How about you Matthew?

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Thumbs-up

    I'm prepared

    Let's get this underway.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Thumbs-down

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Does QWERTY still work?

    QWERTY phones historically have been seen as devices for real work and productivity. Does that case still hold?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    The tide is turning

    Once QWERTY handsets were the flagship smartphone design.  It seemed like nothing could dethrone them.

    The tide is certainly changing, thanks mostly to the iPhone. That said, despite owning an iPhone for years (and an iPad, and a whole raft of touchscreen devices), my typing is still faster on smartphones that have a physical keyboard.

    You just can't beat the tactile feel of pressing down a real key! All-glass smartphones may be stylish, but in terms of input speed they still have a long way to go.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Thumbs-up

    Screen size matters

    I agree that most QWERTY phones were BlackBerry devices and were considered the enterprise choice. However, the iPhone started the touch screen revolution and I feel that my productivity is better with a larger touch screen device. I, and many others, associate work and productivity more today with viewable screen size and available applications.

    QWERTY phones were also historically considered to be more rugged and durable than full glass touch screens. Technology advances in glass, especially as related to Corning's Gorilla Glass products, have removed some of the worry related to touch screen phones. Case designs also give people peace of mind and QWERTY is no longer the standard for real work.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Thumbs-down

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Rough touches

    What failings do touch screen keyboards have today?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Screen limits

    There are a few things that I consider to be weak points:

    • Inconsistent screen layout (even between landscape and portrait mode on some devices) means that users have to relearn the layout
    • The way that some characters are so well hidden in the keyboard layout that finding a much needed ampersand or a hash can take minutes on some keyboards
    • No tactile feedback, making them a major pain since you're literally just touching a sheet of glass

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Thumbs-up

    An acquired taste

    No matter how good touch screen keyboards are, there is still a segment that want the physical feedback and response of a QWERTY keyboard. I used to be a die hard QWERTY keyboard user and liked pressing buttons, but now I prefer Android solutions where I slide my finger around on the display and let the magic of predictive text take over.

    For a few years, touch screen keyboards were useless in cold weather and in inclement environments. Nokia solved that with their super sensitive displays that let you enter text even with gloves on.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Thumbs-down

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Must haves

    What would you like to see added to touch screen keyboard technology?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Tactile senations

    The one technology that I'd like to see make it to on-screen keyboards is haptic, otherwise known as force-feedback. This would give users some form of tactile sensation when the key is pressed, and would dramatically increase both performance and accuracy.

    Another feature I'd like to see improve is predictive text input.  The best way to improve data entry speeds is by not having to enter the data. I think that apps such as Swype and SwiftKey for the Android platforms are both steps in the right direction, but still have a long way to go.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Thumbs-up

    Predictive text, bigger targets

    I know some people have trouble tapping a touch screen keyboard on the proper targets. I would like to see a keyboard that combines predictive text with larger targets. For example, if I wanted to enter the word "BlackBerry" I could tap b-l-a on the standard keyboard and then candidate letters that I might tap next would appear on the screen in double or triple the size. The word would also appear larger above the keyboard to hopefully make predictive text entry faster and more efficient.

    Haptic feedback has been added, but I turn that off on my phones as I find it annoying more than anything. I don't think physical tactile feedback can really be added to a touch screen, but maybe there is something I am missing.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Thumbs-down

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Voice recognition

    Is it possible that voice recognition will make both QWERTY and touch keyboards moot?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    A long ways away

    It may do, but it is still a ways away.

    The promise that voice recognition will free us from our dependence on the keyboard has been dangled in our faces for almost two decades. And while technology has undoubtedly come forwards in leaps and bounds over the past few years - partly thanks to the shift from local processing of the voice files to cloud processing - the technology is a long way off from being able to allow us to do away with the keyboard.

    When the likes of Apple and Google are having a tough time bringing proper voice recognition to market, you know it's a tough nut to crack.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Thumbs-up

    It has a future

    I don't think so. Voice recognition has vastly improved with Siri, Google Now, and Windows Phones recognition engines, but I think it is better for conducting searches, finding destinations, and other quick tasks. I have never been able to dictate to my PC or phone for extended periods of time and am not sold that it is worth it for most people. Of course, those who are unable to enter text physically will see a benefit, but that is not who I am talking about here.

    Voice recognition is also not a viable option for people like me who commute on public transportation or who work in a quiet, focused office environment

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Thumbs-down

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The demand

    How big can the market for QWERTY phones be and will it always be niche?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    The end of QWERTY is near

    Just as compact cameras are ousting dSLRs, and smartphones are replacing in-car GPS receivers, touchscreen devices are replacing devices that have keyboards. Not only are the devices easier and cheaper to manufacture, they are now what is seen as 'modern.' And after all, as far as most smartphone owners are concerned, their smartphone is a content consumption device, not a content creation platform, which means that a good keyboard is secondary to a large screen.

    As such, this is kicking QWERTY-based systems to the curb. And unless Apple adds a keyboard to the iPhone (which is just not going to happen), the days of QWERTY are limited.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Thumbs-up

    Smaller expectations

    The market is very limited and will always be niche. BlackBerry has developed QWERTY hardware as far as it can go and there is really no further improvements or optimization to make.

    I think we can probably look at BB Q10 sales and get a good idea as to the market size. I do think it can be successful as long as the market expectations are understood and success is defined within reason.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Thumbs-down

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Living together?

    Is there a market for touch screen and QWERTY phones or does the dual input get too screwy over time?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    No room

    The problem is space.

    How do you fit a large screen and a keyboard onto a single device? Maybe a hybrid system along the lines of the old Nokia 9000i, where the clamshell design hid a keyboard might make a reappearance.

    Current designs – such as the Blackberry Q10 – are interesting, and offer a glimmer of hope to those looking for a decent keyboard.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Thumbs-up

    Better to stick with one or the other

    I've tried various touch/QWERTY combo devices in the past and am not a fan of jumping between primary input methods. I struggle with this on my Surface Pro a bit and find the experience is better if I just stick with a keyboard session or a tablet/touch session rather than mixing input methods.

    There are generally too many sacrifices (such as smaller screen and portrait only orientation) when a QWERTY is placed on a phone with a touch screen. I rarely use the touch screen on the Q10 and would prefer to have a trackpad added to the keyboard with the touchscreen removed.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Thumbs-down

  • Great Debate Moderator

    When is QWERTY better?

    What work can be done on a QWERTY that can't on a touch screen?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Never

    Shortcuts are better on a QWERTY, including those for quick text input, launching applications, and managing wireless connections. I can't think of anything else and am interested in hearing what my opponent comes up with.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Thumbs-up

    Taking shortcuts

    Shortcuts are better on a QWERTY, including those for quick text input, launching applications, and managing wireless connections. I can't think of anything else and am interested in hearing what my opponent comes up with.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Thumbs-down

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The great race

    Is there a speed and accuracy advantage with QWERTY?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    QWERTY wins

    Absolutely, or at least I think so!

    I think as with most things it varied from person to person, but I've not seen anyone be as fast or as versatile with a touchscreen as people were with keypads. My daughter could type a text message on her QWERTY smartphone while it was still in her pocket!

    Now that was pretty cool!

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Thumbs-up

    Touch by a nose

    I used to think there was, but with the advanced predictive technologies I find I am faster on a touch screen than a QWERTY. You can also use a touch screen device with one hand, where QWERTY devices require a two thumb approach to be most efficient.

    The previous advantage with QWERTY devices may also be related to the fact that so many people used QWERTY and with practice became proficient.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Thumbs-down

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Q10's future

    The sales projections from analysts regarding the Q10 have been mixed. How do you think Q10 will sell over time?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Tough road ahead

    It's hard to tell. With iOS and Android capturing so much attention, it's hard to see how outliers such as Blackberry and Nokia can carve up a market. While analysts may be happy to make guesses I think that only time will tell.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Thumbs-up

    Passed its peak

    I think we have seen Q10 sales as high as they are going to go. It is the best QWERTY device available today and we may see it remain steady as those using low end QWERTY smartphones or feature phones make the move to a BlackBerry smartphone.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Thumbs-down

  • Great Debate Moderator

    QWERTY's staying power in emerging markets

    QWERTY phones appear to be more popular in emerging markets. Do you think that trend will hold?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Subject to change

    For now, yes. However, this could well change as Apple spreads the iPhone to new territories, and also as full-screen Android smartphones drop in price.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Thumbs-up

    QWERTY is cheaper

    Devices like the Nokia Asha are likely successful because of the Nokia name and low cost. I am not sure if the QWERTY versions are popular because that is what is offered or if QWERTY is desired. As I stated earlier, QWERTY devices are a bit more robust than full touch screen phones, especially when you look at the low cost QWERTY devices.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Thumbs-down

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Does the enterprise care about QWERTY?

    Last question: Does the enterprise care about QWERTY any more? Why?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    NO

    Since the decline of the Blackberry, unfortunately no.

    Handsets featuring QWERTY keyboards are considered old, stuffy, and corporate. People want sleek and modern smartphones, and businesses are more than happy to let them use their own devices at work as the popularity of BYOD  continues to increase.

    No one ever said that ergonomic design was fashionable!

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Thumbs-up

    More worried about apps

    I don't think the enterprise cares much about QWERTY since they are more concerned about the availability of apps and services that let people get their work done on the go. So many people are now bringing their own smartphone to work with iPhone and Android devices being the primary choices. Within these offerings there are rugged solutions or cases that protect the devices.

    QWERTY ruled the enterprise before the iPhone, but Apple changed the perception of touch screen devices and I doubt many will take a step back to the QWERTY world again.

    Matthew Miller

    I am for Thumbs-down

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks again for joining us

    Things to come: Closing statements from the debaters will be published on Wednesday and my choice for the winner will be posted on Thursday.

    I'm sure you'll enjoy reading the comments below and please add yours. Plus, don't forget to vote. Adrian and Matthew espcecially will appreciate that, as long as you take their side.

    Posted by Larry Dignan

Closing Statements

Style doesn't always transform into efficiency

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

We technology pundits love change (not only because it gives us new things to write about, but because we love to play with new things), but the user backlash against Windows 8 has shown that users are far more conservative, especially if change means that they have to learn new skills and unlearn old habits.

While there's little doubt that physical keyboards on mobile devices are on the way out, touchscreen technology still has a long way to go before it is as user-friendly as the mechanical QWERTY system introduced in the late 1800s. While it is easy to replicate the familiar QWERTY layout on a touch screen, recreating the tactile feel is still a long way off.

Touch screen systems might be modern and stylish, but style doesn't always transform into efficiency and we'll continue to see QWERTY for some time to come

Physical QWERTY keyboards on the way out

Matthew Miller

I was smoked in the voting for this debate and realize there was a bit of confusion by the readers since it was a debate about physical vs touch QWERTY rather than a debate about the technicalities of QWERTY as a smartphone keyboard layout. I think we can all agree, no matter how passionate many folks still are, that physical QWERTY keyboards are on the way out.

Verizon has them on Droids and BlackBerry has the Q10 and there are still many feature phones to satisfy the QWERTY fan. If Apple ever came out with a hardware QWERTY iPhone or Samsung with another Galaxy Android line then we might see it stick around for a bit, but the touchscreen has taken over and QWERTY is now seen as "old school."

I still keep a couple QWERTY smartphones around because I do enjoy banging away on physical keys from time-to-time. Just don't tell Adrian.

Physical keyboards still have a market

Larry Dignan

I'll go with the crowd on this one. Physical keyboards still have a diminished role. Both Miller and Kingsley-Hughes made good cases, but in the end Adrian had a few better points. Touchscreens dominate but physical keyboards still have a market. The big question is how long that market will last.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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