The QWERTY keyboard wasn't designed for mobile devices

The QWERTY keyboard wasn't designed for mobile devices

Summary: The QWERTY keyboard keeps getting used by manufacturers on mobile devices and I think it is high time that someone step forward and evaluate whether that is really the best alternative. While thumb keyboard adoption is still fairly young in today's world, let's see a unique solution that helps people enter text faster and more accurately.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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messageasephone.jpg

Credit:www.exideas.com
The selection was rather limited last year for people who wanted to purchase a phone-enabled mobile device with a QWERTY thumb keyboard. You had the ever popular RIM BlackBerry models targeted to the enterprise crowd, the very successful Treo 600 and 650, and some select Pocket PC Phone Edition devices that were used mostly by enthusiasts or those outside the U.S. where the devices were more readily available. That changed significantly in 2006 with the plethora of devices available from several manufacturers. The Motorola Q, Nokia E61/E62, Samsung i320, Sony Ericsson M600i, Nokia P990i, Nokia 9500 Communicator, Treo 700 series, T-Mobile MDA (HTC Wizard), T-Mobile Sidekick 3, HTC TyTN, BlackBerry Pearl, and more. There have also been announcements of new QWERTY devices like the HTC Excalibur, Samsung i600, and Treo 750v. I am personally a fan of the thumb keyboard since it allows me to compose short emails and text messages on the go without having to tap away on the display or with a phone keypad.

While 2006 looks to be the year of the QWERTY keyboard on mobile devices, I wonder if QWERTY really is the most efficient keyboard layout for a mobile device or if there is something better that manufacturers could offer by thinking a bit outside the box. The QWERTY keyboard was designed by C. L. Sholes and patented back in 1878 so I think it is high time we took a look at why this layout keeps appearing on mobile devices. On Pocket PC devices there are numerous soft input panel alternatives, including Fitaly, MessagEase, Spb Fullscreen keyboard, TenGo and many more. I have used Fitaly and MessagEase for quite some time and while there is a rather steep learning curve in the beginning, I have been able to achieve over 50 wpm using these methods. A major reason I can achieve these speeds, with good accuracy, while tapping on the screen is that the keyboards are optimized to minimize stylus movement. Now wouldn't that be cool if they could do the same thing with a thumb keyboard to minimize back and forth movement of your thumbs? This may also reduce the "BlackBerry thumb" strains people are experiencing.

There are also computer keyboard alternatives, such as the Frog Pad and DataHand products. I haven't used either of these keyboards, but I just wanted to show that there are alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard on full size computers as well.

RIM has a modified QWERTY keyboard with their SureType predictive keyboard, found on the BlackBerry 7100 series and Pearl devices, that assigns two letters to each key and I think this is a good move in the right direction. However, it is still using the QWERTY layout. Again, I haven't personally used a device with SureType so I cannot state my opinion or experiences. The problem with adoption of an alternative keyboard for one of these devices is getting users to train themselves on the new layout and embrace the new text input method. People seem fairly comfortable, for the most part, with QWERTY even though everyone of these keyboards on mobile devices differ a bit. I haven't had the same exact experience with every QWERTY thumb keyboard either because space bars are missing, there are different shift keys, alternative characters are accessed or located over different keys, etc. that all result in a bit less productivity as you learn the specific layout for your device.

I would like to see an organization study and then recommend a standard for the mobile device QWERTY keyboard layout so any QWERTY device you pick up would be essentially the same. It would also be extremely useful to have standard shortcuts supported on these keyboards, but I understand that some operating systems may limit this functionality so at least having the layout the same would be helpful.

For mobile enthusiasts like myself (ultimately for everyone who uses a mobile device), I would love to see something like a MessagEase (check out this very interesting research paper) or Fitaly keyboard layout that takes only something like 15 separate keys to implement on a mobile device. Instead of the tap and slide used on touchscreens you could double press or press and hold to enter the different characters and since the keyboard is optimized for the most common letters used you wouldn't have to do this too often. Manufacturers could offer quite a nice form factor device with only 15 keys rather than something like the 39 keys I have on my Nokia E61 keyboard. As long as we are still early in the adoption of keyboards on mobile devices, let's think out of the box and implement some cool solutions rather than going with the traditional keyboard that was designed for ten fingers and a wrist rest.

Topic: Hardware

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24 comments
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  • It's a lost cause

    Keep in mind that no matter how you end up laying out the keyboard, those of us who don't have tiny fingers are going to have to use a stylus and pick out the letters anyway.

    All in all, the (extremely limited) real estate is better spent on (touch-) screen rather than keyboard.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
  • Delta II - The Ultimate Mobile Phone Keypad

    The ultimate mobile keypad is the size of a business card or smaller, has virtually no learning curve, allows single-hand operation, offers super-fast 20 to 30+ WPM typing speeds straight out of the box, is comfortable to use by people with large hands and fingers, and is simple, reliable, and powerful.

    Try it now: www.chicagologic.com

    Everything else is just a kludge.
    watunda
    • Awesome! Thanks for the info.

      See, this is what I am talking about in my post. I appreciate the heads-up for another solution that looks great to implement on a mobile phone and I truly wish that some of these unique new keyboards/keypads would come out on a device. I'm afraid that carriers and manufacturers may be too apprehensive about coming out with something out of the norm and hope that when someone does it takes off and people embrace it.
      palmsolo (aka Matthew Miller)
    • Super Fast 20 to 30 WMP minute

      In typing class if you type below 40 WPM that's a failure, a big fat F. By the end of course that 40 becomes 70 WMP minute. I got a nice C in that class with my max 75 WMP. That was years ago and I'm sure I type even fast now.
      voska
  • QWERTY slows you down

    QWERTY was actually designed to slow typists down. When the typewriter was designed, the letters were on metal bars. If you typed too fast, you could tangle the bars up. So QWERTY was designed to slow typing down so that the bars wouldn't tangle as often. I don't think we have that problem anymore...
    red_five
    • I've Been Clocked At 100WPM

      QWERTY doesn't slow me down ;)
      itanalyst
      • That's actually slow

        100 WPM is aveage typing speed for trained typist. Good typist type at 140 to 180 WPM. My mother is one of those who types in excess of 140 WMP. You could type even faster if it weren't for the QWERTY keyboard.
        voska
  • Can we give up QWERTY?

    I have been wondering about this issue.
    http://enablingit.blogspot.com/2006_09_01_archive.html

    It is interesting that we continue to use QWERTY keyboards even in ways beyond the two-handed touch typing it was originally designed for, e.g., thumboards.

    Chording keyboards and keyers are certainly one future for mobile text entry. Although they have been the domain of the wearable computer geeks, the designs continue to improve and become easier to learn. Check out the new EkaPad 12-key USB keyboard, www.ekatetra.com . It does everything a 107-key keyboard does, and fits in your pocket!

    One challenge that still exists is that may mobile devices, such as cellphones and PDAs, have limited or no built-in support for external keyboards. Manufacturers have really not caught up to the idea of external keyboards as they have external headsets and PC synchronization.
    appleyar@...
  • The real solution

    I don't think it's worth arguing about which thumbpad/keyboard
    system is the best, because the real solution to 95% of this kind
    of typing isn't a keyboard at all. It's voice recognition.

    As PDA/Phones pack more and more computing power, it's
    inevitable that voice recognition will replace typing for most
    tasks. Sure, sometimes you'll need to key things in, but that will
    be a small percentage of the time.

    Just make the best of whatever device you use (or that you buy)
    and keep saving your pennies for the next big thing in cell/PDA
    technology.
    bidemytime
    • Sorry about the multiple posts

      The web site was giving me a Proxy error; so I didn't know if the post went through.
      bidemytime
      • You are not alone

        I got the same problem, and ended up posting twice as well (see later in the thread).
        appleyar@...
  • The real solution

    I don't think it's worth arguing about which thumbpad/keyboard
    system is the best, because the real solution to 95% of this kind
    of typing isn't a keyboard at all. It's voice recognition.

    As PDA/Phones pack more and more computing power, it's
    inevitable that voice recognition will replace typing for most
    tasks. Sure, sometimes you'll need to key things in, but that will
    be a small percentage of the time.

    Just make the best of whatever device you use (or that you buy)
    and keep saving your pennies for the next big thing in cell/PDA
    technology.
    bidemytime
    • ZDNet needs to work on their site

      They accepted my first post three times, and then I tried to post an apology twice and got this error message:

      "Your message was not posted because it is a duplicate of your last post!"

      If only it had caught the first post, all of this could have been avoided. Sigh...
      bidemytime
  • The real solution is coming soon

    I don't think it's worth arguing about which thumbpad/keyboard system is the best, because the real solution to 95% of this kind of typing isn't a keyboard at all. It's voice recognition.

    As PDA/Phones pack more and more computing power, it's inevitable that voice recognition will replace typing for most tasks. Sure, sometimes you'll need to key things in, but that will be a small percentage of the time.

    Just make the best of whatever device you have and save your pennies for the voice recognition phones that will be the next big thing.
    bidemytime
    • I'm speech impaired, so not my solution. (NT)

      .
      Grayson Peddie
    • Have you seen what voice recognition does to my words? (nt)

      nt = no text
      CobraA1
      • Well...

        If you input your post via voice recognition, then it works fine.
        bidemytime
    • Voice recognition use still limited

      Voice recognition accuracy continues to improve, but it is long way away from ubiquitous use. As I point out in my blog, http://enablingit.blogspot.com/2006_09_01_archive.html , accuracy plumets when you introduce background noise, more than one speaker, or a non-native speaker. Add the clarity of a typical cellphone connection, and you can forget it. I have to laugh at companies putting in voice recognition on their customer service lines. They are obviously in denial of how many people have cellphones these days!

      Can you imagine a place where everyone talks to their computer. And you thought someone chatting loudly on a cellphone in public was annoying.

      So unfortunately the need for hand-keyed data entry will be with us for a while yet.
      appleyar@...
      • I can't imagine it either

        You wrote: "Can you imagine a place where everyone talks to their computer. And you thought someone chatting loudly on a cellphone in public was annoying."

        I can't imagine that, but the article was about keyboards and input alternatives for handhelds, not computers in the office.

        I would dread the day an open office environment had people talking into their computers. It would be untenable unless everyone wore helmets with speakers and microphones. Of course, then you could pack people into the smallest cubes yet with no loss of production. In fact, it surprises me that no company has tried that yet ;)

        (Interesting blog, BTW. I'll have to read it more thoroughly when I get a chance.)
        bidemytime
  • Don't Type, Just Speak

    How is this for outside the box thinking - Don't type messages on your mobile phone, just speak them. My company's Vemail product overcomes the input problem on mobile devices by letting users speak their email. But its not what you think. We don't transcribe the voice to text, rather we actually get the voice delivered to any email user in 100% of the use cases. Its 2006, and about time email stopped being about purely text. Enter Vemail VoiceEmail.

    But its not an IVR. Vemail offers a visual interface on the mobile phone for navigation and inbox review, combined with a voice interface for response or new message creation. The resulting user modality is "read email and speak reply". There is no easier way to use email on a mobile phone. www.voicegenesis.com
    modoguru