iPhone: Eat Up Martha?
Once you actually use this magical display there’s no going back. We actually think we have a better keyboard. It takes a few days of getting used to, but I bet you dinner that after a few days of using it you’ll be convinced. It takes a week–you have to learn how to trust it. When you learn how to trust it, you’ll fly. And we can use that physical space for other things where you don’t need a keyboard–we can add new applications… it provides incredible flexibility, and you don’t take up half the space of this thing with a physical keyboard.”
–Apple CEO Steve Jobs, All Things Digital 5
At our All Things Digital conference last month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs claimed that no one on Apple’s design team questioned the forthcoming iPhone’s lack of a physical keyboard. Of course, the team members have presumably spent enough time with the device to feel comfortable with it. Not so the New York Times, which has dubbed the onscreen keyboard Apple’s “billion-dollar gamble,” apparently without even using it.
And to be sure, it may be just that. Text entry on portable devices has always been a thorny matter. Apple knows this all too well, having watched in horror as its Newton MessagePad became a commercial failure, mercilessly tarred and feathered for its handwriting recognition problems.
Is the company setting itself up for another such scenario with the iPhone’s keyboard? “The tactile feedback of a mechanical keyboard is a pretty important aspect of human interaction,” Bill Moggridge, a founder of industrial design outfit Ideo, told the Times. “If you take that away you tend to be very insecure.”
I suppose. But isn’t it possible that Apple’s implementation of the iPhone’s onscreen keyboard might be well-done enough to allay those anxieties? Early impressions from some folks who’ve actually played with the device suggest this may be the case. “I think the iPhone’s virtual keyboard is a huge improvement over the mechanical thumbpads found on the Treo and any other smart phones of its size,” Chicago Sun Times columnist Andy Ihnatko wrote in January after spending 45 minutes with the device. “The buttons are significantly larger, you don’t have to hit them dead-center, you lightly tap them instead of punching them down, and the software is smart enough to know that you meant to type ‘Tuesday’ instead of ‘Tudsday.’ After 30 seconds, I was already typing faster with the iPhone than I ever have with any other phone. I suspect that true email demons will need to adapt to the lack of tactile feedback, though.”