Will there be any physical buttons for our mobile devices in the future?

Evan Selleck
Contributing Editor from  Arizona
| October 9, 2011

Over the weekend I went to go see Real Steel (Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots!), and while I enjoyed the movie, I couldn’t help but notice all of the ways the movie showcased the future. Sure, giant robots fighting is awesome by itself, especially when you can actually see the action, but I couldn’t take my eyes off all the mobile devices they kept showing off. If you’ve seen the trailer for the movie, or the movie itself, then you know what I’m talking about. Not only did the mobile devices, like the main protagonist’s cell phone, glow like incandescent mini-stars, they were all about the touchscreens.

As you’ve heard me talk about in previous articles, I really enjoy science-fiction. And while I like the all-out nature of it, I like it a bit more when it has a slight undertone. Like they did in Real Steel. The movie is set in 202x, and while that would be plenty of room for some other franchises to make it seem like the whole world will be decked out in ridiculous advances in technology (just under flying cars, mind you), this movie kept it understated. And they did so by making the future come to life in the devices that we use every day, like our mobile phones and laptops. In truth, setting aside the giant robots, if it weren’t for these devices that popped up in the movie, you might not have been able to tell that it was actually taking place in the future.

The first thing that took center stage for me was the cell phone. It’s shown off in the trailer if you haven’t seen the movie, but the way that it lights up is actually dimmed down I think. In the movie, the thing is super bright. We talk about phones, and other gadgets being shiny, but this wasn’t that at all. No, it replaced shiny with bright, getting rid of pretty much every physical aspect of the device that we may call shiny, and replacing it with what looked to be a mirror, or even a glass-like surface. There were some hard edges, like the top and bottom of the device, but for the most part it was all glass-like. To be honest, it looked like what an iPhone might look like ten or eleven years from now. (What's interesting, even if it was done just for marketing, is that the phone was manufactured by Nokia.) What was most noticeable, though, was the fact it was see-through. You could see what was happening on the “face” of the device from the back of it, which seemed cool, but I could see people being paranoid about other folks looking at their device.

And then there’s the laptop. It wasn’t as prominent as the phone, but it was just as bright. We’ve talked about all-touchscreen devices in the past, and we know that Google (with their Ice Cream Sandwich mobile OS) is looking to make physical buttons a thing of the past (at least with mobile phones), but this just shows me that people still think an all-glass-like surface to work from is pretty neat. In truth, while I think it’s a great idea in theory, I’m someone that would probably get tired of typing a paper, or an article or anything else for that matter, without having any physical keys. The software keyboard on an all-touchscreen smartphone is one thing, because I’m not typing hundred word pieces from it in one sitting. But, I think if I had to use a really bright, see-through all-touch laptop, I wouldn’t be much of a fan for long.

Of course, there are infrared-based digital keyboards out there right now, where people can just “shoot” an image of a keyboard onto a desk or table and use it right there on the spot to type up what they want. Again, this is a great concept idea, but I think in the long-run it wouldn’t be much of a safe bet. But while I’m not much of a fan of a laptop that is all touchscreen, I did really like the concept of the radio/media player they had in the movie. It was just briefly shown, but it was just like the glass phone, completely see-through with bright “dials” and controls. This is something I could see using every day without a problem.

So where do you stand with touchscreen devices? Do you think the future will be all about the software keyboard, the all-touchscreen form factor, and will completely do away with the physical keys? Or will the hardware keyboard and buttons stay strong, holding their place in the market? Let me know in the comments below.