QWERTY Must Die: Welcome to the Future of Typing
How today's designers are crafting the perfect keyboard for a mobile world
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File the QWERTY keyboard in the same category as lithium-ion batteries, compact discs, and the internal combustion engine—they're all dated technologies that are increasingly out of step with our rapidly evolving tech universe.
Most would agree that typing is one of the most annoying aspects of mobile phone UIs—it’s slow, awkward, and anything but ergonomic. The situation is only marginally better on tablets. It's exactly why manufacturers have created the "hybrid" trend, giving people the option to use a physical keyboard when it's needed and touch when it's not. Microsoft’s Surface tablets, for example, can be equipped with a couple different compact QWERTY keyboards.
Despite the growing ubiquity of touchscreen devices, people still seem to prefer the tactile familiarity of physical QWERTY keyboards. In a 2012 Nokia survey, participants overwhelmingly cited QWERTY keyboards—not touchscreens—as their preferred input method for mobile devices. Meanwhile, a December study by SurveyMonkey found nearly two-thirds of respondents find it more difficult to conduct searches on mobile phones than on laptop or desktop computers.
But traditional PCs are increasingly going the way of the dodo—and so are the keyboards that control them. The future of computing is compact and mobile, and we need a better typing solution to meet those demands. Luckily, there are plenty of bright young minds at work, racing to create a new standard.
SwiftKey and Swype
For swift-fingered Android users, there are a few clever apps that replace the “tap” experience of touchscreen typing with a series of swiping gestures. It works just like it sounds: You swipe your finger over a series of letters, and the keyboard spits out the correct word. While popularized by Swype, the concept has become ubiquitous enough that Google now includes similar functionality in the default Android keyboard.
But third-party keyboard apps like SwiftKey also include a suite of cloud features to back up phrases and gestures, as well as a “trending” function that monitors news and social platforms to sift out and recognize the most relevant topics and keywords of the day. Swype is still around, too, and it offers similar functionality. Both apps are currently only available for Android, since Apple doesn't allow third-party keyboards to be installed on its devices.
Minuum is truly one of the most innovative typing solutions around. It rethinks the QWERTY layout altogether, shrinking the entire keyboard down to a thin strip of letters along the bottom edge of the screen. The benefit is obvious: You can see a ton more screen real estate when you're typing. While the keyboard has been available for phones and tablets since last year, Minuum introduced a version for smartwatches in January. It seems like an ideal combination to us.
The keyboard relies entirely on predictive text (similar to T9) for typing—which may dredge up horrible memories of old Motorola phones. But Minuum is actually surprisingly powerful. Users can adjust the size and placement of the keyboard within their devices, and with an open SDK, the developers hope to revolutionize UI typing as a whole, allowing users to create typepads on physical or digital platforms.
The Palm of Your Hand
Contributing perhaps the craziest (but also coolest) idea on this list, Samsung recently filed for patents that hint at a unique typing concept: an augmented reality keyboard that's projected onto the palms of your hand. In theory, this would let you use the joints of your fingers as "keys" and type by tapping them with your other hand.
It’s been rumored for some time that the South Korean electronics giant is developing an AR device to compete with Google Glass—perhaps to be called the Galaxy Glass—and this concept adds some substance to the claim. It’s quite an exciting concept, but we imagine it would take some time to perfect, both for developers and users.
Your Own Voice
Speech recognition is perhaps the ultimate typing solution... except, of course, when you don't want what you're sending to be heard. The tech to support it has been around since at least the 90's, but perfect recognition has been slow to arrive.
Dragon, from Nuance, is perhaps the most widely marketed product available, but Apple, Google, and Microsoft all have versions of their own that are built into iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 8. It's surprising how well these native voice recognition apps work these days, but when it comes to longer messages, people still tend to prefer the familiar, physical act of typing.
Your Physical Surroundings
Glasses aren't the only augmented reality devices out there. There are also hands-free 3D controllers like Leap Motion and Fin, which allow users to manipulate software UIs with gestures. While these aren't ideal for typing, some other approaches are.
The Celluon Epic*, for instance, is a tiny device that costs $149.99 and can laser-project a virtual qwerty onto any surface. A small camera on the device tracks your finger movements and reports them via Bluetooth to any paired device. End result? A keyboard made entirely out of light.
These days, developers only seem interested in making devices smaller, so perhaps it's not surprising that there are dozens of “fold-up” keyboards available for mobile devices, with little more than looks to set them apart. Perhaps the smallest (and most intriguing) is myType—a Kickstarter-backed Bluetooth keyboard that folds up to about the size of a phablet.
While it's certainly smaller than most full keyboards, and still provides a satisfying ergonomic experience, we have to wonder whether that experience is worth $60 on top of the hassle of carrying it around with you. If not, you may want to check out some cheaper, clunkier alternatives.