Why the Keyboard is Here to Stay

There’s been a lot of fuss recently, (and not so recently), about multi-touch interfaces and alternatives to keyboard and mouse as input devices for computers, but I believe that the keyboard, at least, is here to stay.

The keyboard is the best instrument we have, and the second best instrument that I can think of, to get text quickly from my mind into a computer. It’s been around for about 181 years now, and while there are some strong arguments to change the way it works, there is no really good reason to get rid of it.

As Scott Berkun said the other day:

Most technology doesn’t change much. The wiring that powers your home, the plumbing that brings you water, the roads you go to and from work on, work in mostly the same way they always have. This is ok. Lack of upgrade is not a sign of failure.

He is right, and the keyboard belongs right in there with plumbing, elictricity, and roads. How else are we going to get ideas from our minds into a computer? (I have an idea, I will come to it shortly).

Multi-touch has been the darling of the UI world for a little while now, and we keep hearing about the possibility of multi-touch enabled full-size screens. BumpTop has released a version of their software, (which is really cool, by the way), that has multitouch support. Do you really want to spend your day at a desk or counter, with your arms extended in front of you touching a screen? Try it right now for sixty seconds. Just reach out and put your fingers in front of your screen. I’ll wait. Finished? How do your shoulders and arms feel? A little tired? Now imagine your whole workday like that. Yes, we will become accustomed to the feeling, and we’ll get more endurance in our shoulder muscles, but we’re not meant to spend eight hours a day with our arms out like zombies.

How about voice control? It works pretty well in Star Trek, but if you have ever had to speak for an extended period of time you will know that your voice can get tired and sore just as your shoulders and arms can. Even if voice recognition technology was good enough to correctly transcribe what we say every time, with the correct grammar, (and it’s not, as Fred Wilson’s Dictated Post clearly illustrates),we would still end up talking all day. Imagine what it would sound like in an office, and how would students take notes on their laptops? Because of voice fatique and noise levels, voice control is not a viable solution for entering large amounts of text, or for doing long periods of computer-based work.

Multi-touch and voice control are great for short messages and commands. Even my ancient Motorola lets me use a voice command to call my fiancée, but for entering a lot of text, or for long sessions of work, they suck.

What’s the solution? Thought control. Hook the computers up to our brains, then whatever we think will become what is written, or drawn, or whatever. Imagine the possibilities, no more typing, no more trying to draw something that you see in your mind using Illustrator, because your computer sees it too. Also, we won’t need computer screens because hey, if the computer can see what’s going on in our minds, surely it can show things to us as well. However, even if we include the Firefox, controlling a computer with my thoughts is still a dream and will remain a dream for many years to come. The solution for today is the keyboard. It lets us enter text and commands very quickly, often faster than we could write them using pen and paper. It lets us do so quietly. And it’s a worldwide standard.

Would the MacBook Touch Really be Useful?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about a MacBook Touch – a Mac laptop with a touch screen, perhaps in tablet form, but each time I read a speculation like this I wonder – would a MacBook Touch really be useful?

Found at shinyshiny.tv/2008/07/rumour_macbook.html
Image found at http://www.shinyshiny.tv/2008/07/rumour_macbook.html

I sit at a desk, (or on a couch sometimes), and work on my MacBook Pro.  I spend most of my time coding in PHP, Javascript, HTML, or CSS, and I use the trackpad to control the mouse.  This way I rarely have to move my hands, (I know it sounds lazy).  I find that I can get things done fastest working like this.  If my computer were to have a touch, (or multi-touch), screen I would have to lift my arms, touch the screen, then find my position again on the keyboard.  I know it would be fast, but multiplied by a thousand, (or however many times I interact with the mouse), per day it would take a lot of time.  Really, if I can drag something across the screen by moving one finger five cenimetres on the trackpad, why would I involve my whole arm in dragging something twenty-five centimetres across the screen?  Call me lazy, but it seems like a lot of unneeded work to me.

Another more minor issue would be the dirty, dirty screen.  My screens, (on all of my computers, not just the MacBook Pro), get pretty dirty, I they would probably get pretty disgusting if I was touching them all of the time, instead of just sometimes as I do now.  True, I could, (and would), clean the screen, but it’s not just a one and a half second wipe like on an iPhone or iPod Touch – I imagine that it would get annoying after a while.

A tablet form factor would reduce these problems.  I have never owned a Tablet PC myself, but the demos I’ve seen were pretty cool and I can see how they would be useful in some situations, but for everyday computing I don’t really see how the added cost of a touch screen would give a MacBook Touch any added value.

Of course, they usually seem to figure out how to do it down there at Apple, so if they are actually working on a MacBook Touch, it may be excellent, we’ll have to wait and see.