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It’s Time to Ditch the Physical Keyboard

Lenovo spent two years on the design of its new business laptop–but not on its internals. It took that long to tweak two keys on the keyboard. In this light, might it be time to ditch the old clickety-click of physical keyboarding?

Lenovo spent two years on the design of its new business laptop–but not on its internals. It took that long to tweak two keys on the keyboard. In this light, might it be time to ditch the old clickety-click of physical keyboarding?

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Lenovo T400

Lenovo’s T400s is, by most accounts, a pretty solid machine, aimed directly at the business user. It’s also slightly thinner and lighter than previous efforts, even while it retains most of the trademark seriously staid Lenovo styling. But it’s in that design that we learn about the extra large escape and delete keys, stretched vertically since that’s the direction you tend to reach when you type. It took lots of experimentation, tracking of users habits, and careful thinking to come up with this change. And it kind of makes sense–for non-letter keys, these two are typically not enlarged on computer keyboards, yet they get an enormous amount of use (check yourself typing, and you’ll see).

But since it takes such a huge effort to tweak two small features in the design of a QWERTY keypad, isn’t it time that the humble physical keyboard get phased out?

There is, after all, an alternative beginning to take off in the smartphone world: Touchscreen-based, or soft-keyboards. The iPhone has one, the two newest HTC Google phones do, as do many new smartphone-class devices. They have the advantage of being totally reconfigurable, since the changes simply have to be completed in code rather than a physical tweak. You can also switch languages easily, and custom gaming or program-specific keys are a breeze. But it’s not just smartphones–don’t forget Microsoft Surface. Next-gen e-readers will have touchscreens too, and when the smartbooks and Internet tablets start arriving, touchscreen keyboards will begin to be ubiquitous. It’s in-keeping with many designers visions of the future, and advancing touchscreen science.

There are of course people who will argue this idea is nonsense. “Must have a physical keyboard!” they shout, and point at the Palm Pre’s advantage over the iPhone in this regard. The riposte to that is simple: you like a physical keyboard merely because it’s what you’re used to…it’s not necessarily the best option. And yes, touchscreen tech isn’t quite perfect yet. More advanced haptic feedback, or even textured screen technology, would aid in locating the right keys with your fingertips. Yet even the current technology is perfectly serviceable–texting on an iPhone is just as fast as battering away at a cellphone numberpad.

If it takes a major computer manufacturer such a long time to effect a simple change to the keyboard, then that’s the sign of a technology that’s coming to the end of its life. It’s a 150-year old layover from the typewriter era. But there’s just one issue that will get in the way. Physical QWERTY as a design has a gargantuan inertia, which is why supposedly better physical alternatives like Dvorak haven’t taken off.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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