I’m succumbing and adding to the iPhone mad coverage. I figure there’s no better day to write about it than on the release day.
There’s been a lot of discussion about how bad the touchscreen keyboard will be. Based on all the negative comments from the rabble, technologists, and financial analysts (all of whom have yet to even use the thing), you’d think the device was forcing users to type with a one-button mouse or something like that. But based on pre-release reviews, the touchscreen keyboard seems to provide a decent level of usability. Of course, the reviewers given pre-release iPhones probably have a history of being friendly to Apple products, but none of them had really bad things to say about the typing experience.
Until there are some pretty fancy haptics involved, we’re not going to be able to replicate the tactile benefits of a physical keyboard over the software keyboard. But here are some benefts that a software-based keyboard can do that physical buttons can’t. These screen caps are from Apple’s iPhone keyboard video.
1. Visual buttons can change in appearance.
In this image, you see that a key press causes the button to get bigger, providing visual feedback instead of tactile feedback. For users who look at the keyboard when typing, this is very useful because the eyes don’t need to move in order to see what has been pressed. I haven’t learned to touch type on my Treo yet, so my eyes are constantly shifting between the keyboard and the typing field. For users who don’t touch type, I suspect the soft keyboard will be just as good, if not better than a physical one. For users who do type without looking at the keyboard, I suspect muscle memory will set in and they will also be able to touch type with a soft keyboard.
2. A software keyboard can change layouts for different use cases.
In one image, you see the keyboard while using email. In the other, the keyboard has changed to better address the needs when entering an URL. Not only can keys change their input content (”return” changes to “Go”), keys can also change in size and number (the single “space” key becomes three keys for “.”, “/”, and “.com”). There are some software/hardware hybrid keyboards that can change key mappings and even the visual display on the key cap, but they certainly can’t change the sizes or number of keys. These images show a fairly subtle instance of modifying the keyboard to usage, but it’s easy to imagine more drastic examples of contextual keyboard adaptation.
3. A software key can change its target size.
The actuation area of a software key is not limited to its visual presentation. This image shows that the touchable area for the “E” key actually overflows into the visual areas of the “W” and “R” keys. In this case, the context of the word allows the software to predict that the next letter is more likely to be an “E” than “W” or “R”, so it changes the input area to reflect this likelihood. The obvious concern is what happens if the user actually wants to type “W” or “R” in this case. How difficult will that be? Another concern is that there is an inconsistency between what you see and the underlying behavior. I wonder if they tried versions where the key expands visually to reflect its increased input area. Is it too distracting or confusing? I’m curious to find out.
4. Not really part of the keyboard, but related to text editing. This dynamic magnifying lens has appeared in desktop software and can be very useful in some cases. This is an interesting way to improve legibility of text on a small screen.
Aside from the device itself, I’m also finding myself fascinated with the blog coverage of the people waiting outside Apple stores. There’s something about how obsessed the bloggers are with how obsessed the iPhone early adopters are that is pretty entertaining. And apparently, The Woz is first in line at the Valley Fair Apple Store. And Bill Atkinson is in the Palo Alto line.