Why keyboards will play on for portables

They may be a throwback, but keyboards are still the best way to input data on portables
Written by Alfred Poor, Contributor
COMMENTARY--I was sitting in on a technology planning meeting yesterday, when someone asked, "How much longer are we going to have keyboards, anyway?"

It's a great question because it strikes deep into the design constraints of portable computing while, at the same time, addresses the limits of future technologies.

Keyboards are an amazing example of technological inertia and longevity. Our modern computers use a layout that would be familiar to Christopher Latham Sholes, who is credited with creating the familiar QWERTY keyboard layout in 1872.

From a design perspective, there are practical limits to how small you can make a notebook computer if it is to have a keyboard. Once the keycaps get too small and too close together, most users can no longer type on it comfortably. The mobile computing landscape is littered with computers that failed to meet this requirement; Windows CE handheld PCs are among the recent examples.

The size and resolution of today's notebook displays have made it fairly easy to fit a full-sized keyboard in the lower half, with the display in the top half. As computing devices get smaller, however, there's no room for a keyboard. Cell phones have stuck with a traditional phone keypad (plus a half-dozen extra function buttons), which is fine for the relatively constrained data requirements of phone numbers. But you run into problems when you try to key in names and words.

PDAs have gone the route of touch-screens, but there are limits as to how fast you can tap out words with an on-screen keyboard or use handwriting-recognition features. Most handwriting systems are still limited to discrete character recognition, which requires you to write each letter and numeral separately. You cannot write out words longhand, which would be a lot faster.

Even devices that are too small for traditional keyboards now have add-on keyboard alternatives. Think Outside's folding Stowaway keyboard, which is available for both Palm OS and Pocket PC devices, is one example. Other <="" span="">f="http://www.cix.co.uk/~e-frog/efp00011.html">alternative keyboards include LandWare's GoType! keyboard and the Matias Half Keyboard. Still other companies are working on plastic or fabric keyboards that can be rolled up.

If you don't use a keyboard for input, what are the alternatives? The one major candidate--aside from the existing touch-screens--is voice recognition. Certainly, this is a technology with a lot of promise. We've already begun to take it for granted in a number of settings, such as hands-free phone dialing and the voice-based input used by some airline reservation systems.

Voice recognition has improved immensely in recent years with the development of speaker-independent systems, which require minimal training, and continuous speech recognition, where you can speak naturally without stopping between each word.

Voice recognition still has a lot of significant drawbacks, however. Unless you can greatly restrict the vocabulary and the context required for a given task, recognition accuracy can be frustratingly low. A 95 percent accuracy rate--a result that is not uncommon under many conditions--means that you will still have 10 or more errors per 200-word page. Voice recognition also requires significant processing power and memory, which are not always available in portable devices and which can be a drain on battery life.

As a result, I don't expect voice recognition to play a significant role in general mobile computing devices, at least for the near future. We'll ease into it with niche applications on portable devices, and with voice-based systems where you can call to access data such as e-mail. But for the time being, you can expect the QWERTY keyboard to continue to play a large role in your portable computing input.

What alternative input methods have you tried? Let me know in the TalkBack below.

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