Each time I look at something related to the iPhone, I keep coming back to one aspect of the device I don't like - the onscreen keyboard. As much as I think that the glass-topped software-powered keyboard on the iPhone looks cool, I keep coming back the one thing that's important about a keyboard to me - usability. Do I think that the iPhone's keyboard is going to be an efficient input device? No. Is this going to mean that Apple is going to have a hard time selling iPhones? Probably not.
Selling someone their first iPhone is going to be easier than selling them an upgrade in a couple of yearsFor me, the main point of a keyboard is to allow me to input data quickly and efficiently. I don't like the idea of screwing around with a critical input device just for the sake of simplification and making it cool. The trade-off just isn't worth it. You can have the best, coolest, most fully-featured device in the world, but if you can't get information into it, it's really nothing more than a fancy paperweight. For me, any company that claims to have come up with a new, innovative, easy to use keyboard on the first attempt makes me wary. When I need to pay $500+ and sign-up to a 2 year contract to discover just how easy to use that revolutionary new system is, it's a total deal-breaker. Pass, I'll wait and see what the next version has to offer. That's why I can still be excited about the technology crammed into the iPhone and yet at the same time give it a wide berth.
But will the lack of a usable keyboard on the iPhone cripple Apple's dream gadget? No, it won't. Why? Because the people who will be the early adopters are buying a feeling they've been sold. I remember the owner of a publishing company once telling me that they could happily ship out books where everything past the first chapter was replaced by a block of styrofoam and most people wouldn't notice (and it would be profitable, even if they had to overnight a proper book to everyone who complained). Folks in the publishing industry know that many of their customers never read past the first chapter. Folks in the cellphone industry know that many of their customers never use anything other than the most basic of features on their cellphone.
A great many of those who become early adopters of the iPhone will be buying it because of the Apple logo and the marketing hype. Just like the book could be mostly styrofoam, the iPhone's interface could be mostly made up of placeholders and screenshots mockups and I'm certain that many wouldn't notice or care. John C. Dvorak claims to have an insider tip that as many as 20% of iPhones will be returned because of the keyboard. I don't believe it. The iPhone is going to be another Apple success (not on the scale of 10 million in a year - Steve might have to do some explaining to stockholders on that one later ...) but it'll be a success nonetheless. What might be a far more serious problem for Apple is keeping the momentum going. Selling someone their first iPhone is going to be easier than selling them an upgrade in a couple of years.
There is, however, a certain "Apple logic" behind the iPhone's keyboard. From a stylistic perspective, the use of an on-screen software keyboard means that the iPhone can be sleek and simple. Apple hates having too many buttons on anything. The on-screen keyboard means fewer physical buttons. From a functionality point of view, no physical keyboard means that the iPhone can have a larger screen (although for anything but the most basic web surfing, it's still too small).