I swear, I'm not trying to beat a dead horse, but typing on a touchscreen sucks. I've made it very clear that I'm not a fan and am desperately seeking an alternative. I would love nothing more than a world class BlackBerry keyboard fixed below a large display. But it would make for an enormous phone, so that definitely isn't the best answer. Not to mention, the few OEMS who have tried this form factor have failed to say the least. Of course, I could simply buy a phone with a slide-out QWERTY, but I hate moving parts, using phones in landscape and the added bulk.
A physical keyboard gives tactile feedback – you feel the depression and click of the button. You can also feel your way around the keys without looking or typing undesired letters. No matter how many people try to synthesize this with haptic feedback or pressure sensitive displays, typing on a capacitive touchscreen will always be different. And software alternatives like Swype and SwiftKey just aren't as reassuring or as accurate as physical buttons. Someone did think outside the box a little and conceptualized a projection keyboard for the upcoming iPhone 5. Although it's not tactile, this larger keyboard would make it easier to input mass text by allowing users to type more naturally – much like typing on a full PC keyboard. But despite how novel the idea actually is, it's a bit before its time and isn't practical for most situations like typing on the go or tapping out a quick text.
What if the solution was much simpler than any of this? Instead of creating an entirely new display technology or a laser projection keyboard (both of which may never appeal to the masses), what if there were hardware keyboard attachments to fit over your touchscreen? You get the best of both worlds: a large display and detachable QWERTY to be used as needed. Of course, this isn't an entirely new concept, as there have been quite a few failed attempts by iPhone users who simply can't let go of their love for physical keyboards. But Friday evening, I was intrigued by a rather unique and new idea.
SmartKeyboard comes from the imaginations of Jing Yang from the eico Motion Lab in China. It is an iPad 2 SmartCover-inspired physical keyboard attachment for the iPhone. Using magnetic clasps, it attaches itself to the bottom portion of the antenna. It can be rolled-up and turned into a landscape prop or a grip for the camera. Likewise, if you need to type a long email, you can quickly whip the keyboard around and begin typing. Genius.
Albeit promising, I did notice some serious design flaws in the concept video, and it leaves many things to question. For one, the symbol support is unclear. There is a dedicated symbol button, but unless the backlit letters on the keyboard are dynamic, you would have to roll the keyboard down and use the software keyboard to input a question mark, comma, etc. Obviously not helpful. This could easily be resolved by simply showing the alternate characters on their respective keys, much like a BlackBerry keyboard. Even this wouldn't be perfect though, because the stock iPhone keyboard sports two pages of symbols, so this current design would clearly need to be reworked prior to production. Also, if you need the keyboard in another language, you would have to buy an entirely new keyboard and switch them out as necessary – not a huge deal, but an inconvenience nonetheless.
Another part that I can't quite wrap my head around is how the Return, Space and symbol keys are below the actual display. This forces me to believe that there is more to this keyboard than just placing buttons over the stock keyboard. Is it battery powered? How is it backlit? The video claims “more [display] space” while typing, but I'm not sure how that would actually work out. And lastly, the keys are spread across a paper thin, roll-up pad. This means that the individual keys will not have much travel distance when depressed and would likely be “mushy” keys, which I despise more than software keyboards.
Although there are some gaping flaws in this SmartKeyboard, these guys have the right idea and are off to a great start. It's only a concept at this point and definitely needs some refinement before it ever makes it to production (if it ever does). But this is one accessory I'd love to try out and see more of, especially for phones of all shapes and sizes, not just the iPhone. And I'm sure it would save a lot of people from embarrassing appearances on a particularly popular website that thrives off of the unfortunate (yet hilarious) mistakes of Apple's autocorrect.
What say you? Is a roll-up keyboard attachment the perfect solution to touchscreen keyboards? Or would you suffer through using a software keyboard over attaching a physical QWERTY at your own leisure?
Image via Mobiflip