The quirks of Qwerty

The arrival of natural language technology such as Artificial Solutions’ assistant on smartphones and the shift to gesture-based touch interfaces has greatly reduced the need for phones to have a physical keyboard. And that’s no bad thing, I’d argue.

Die-hard Blackberry users will no doubt disagree, but the Qwerty keyboard was never designed to be shrunk to the diminutive size required by modern smartphones, and so compromises inevitably have to be made.

Either the keyboard is too small to be usable, or the screen has to be squashed to allow room for a keyboard. Alternatively, you make the device so big that it cannot fit in a shirt pocket.

Nokia struggled during many years to address these trade-offs with its Communicator series of keyboard-equipped phones, predecessors to today’s smartphones.

The Communicator started off big and heavy and got progressively smaller and lighter with each fresh evolution of the product. Still, the device was fundamentally compromised and the Communicator never became a mainstream product category.

A decade on, you’d think most manufacturers would have learnt their lesson
So I was surprised to read that NEC has now developed an Android-based smartphone with a keyboard, the NEC Terrain, which will be sold in the US by AT&T.

Blackberry, despites its much diminished presence in the smartphone market, still has a certain nostalgia for the keyboard, so its latest model, the Q10, sports the trademark Qwerty keyboard beneath a 3-inch touchscreen.

But these devices are increasingly chasing a niche market. While chat-crazy teenagers are pretty adept at pecking out messages with two fingers or thumbs at diminutive keyboards, most mobile phone users find a physical keyboard frustrating slow and error-prone way to communicate, particularly if they have large fingers.

It is surprising that the Qwerty keyboard remains so popular today as it was never designed for electronic communication and predates the digital era by almost a century.

Indeed, the characters on a Qwerty keyboard are arranged the way they are – rather than alphabetically, for example — because early mechanical typewriters would jam if two neighbouring keys were pressed in quick succession.

In English-speaking countries, the now-familiar Q-W-E-R-T-Y arrangement reduces the chances of that happening. Other languages have different letter-pair frequencies and so their typewriters had different layouts – France uses A-Z-E-R-T-Y, for example.

With the arrival of the computer era, the industry could have standardized on a different keyboard. But it didn’t, as that would have required a much steeper learning curve for the army of data entry clerks, who usually had trained as typists.

Sixty years on, the limitations of the Qwerty keyboard are even more apparent. Brits who travel abroad have all experienced the frustrating experience of trying to find the ‘£’ symbol on a non-British keyboard. And in the social media era, commonly-used symbols such as ‘#’ or ‘@’, which Twitter users will need many times a day, are often frustratingly difficult to find.

As more and more communication shifts to mobile device, we are going to see a lot more innovation in this area of user interfaces. Like it or not, the Q-W-E-R-T-Y keyboard, despites its faults, is here to stay, but increasingly it will become a “fallback” interface that pops up as a virtual keyboard only when other forms of communication have failed.
The lion’s share of communication is going to take place via touchscreen gestures and, of course, natural language interfaces which, by accurately understanding or even predicting the desires of a mobile phone user, considerably reduce the need to fall back on the keyboard.

Artificial Solutions’ personal assistant is a perfect example of how natural language interaction can allow mobile phone users to access services without having to manually enter lots of data, and so reduce the need for typing.

The Qwerty keyboard may have survived for 150 years but I suspect it will be unlikely to survive for another 150.

 

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