How can businesses save keyboards from becoming obsolete?

Changing the keyboard layout and the adoption of voice and touch controls are changing the way consumers use computers, but how this applies to business workstations is unclear.

How to adapt a touch OS to a keyboard on an Android phone

The modalities of how business workstations and consumer computers are used are diverging, and the first victim of this change is the keyboard. This is not precisely a new phenomenon--this divergence started roughly 12 years ago with the release of the original iPhone, which (for a variety of reasons) sidelined BlackBerry-style devices with full keyboards in favor of a touchscreen.

Likewise, the rise of tablet computers--again, led by the iPad, considering Google's "one foot out of the pool" stance toward Android tablets--pushed more toward content consumption, with keyboards available, though something of an afterthought. First-party keyboards for the iPad and Microsoft Surface have a mixed reputation--certainly, they are keyboards, but would be ungratifying to write a novel (or manifesto, depending on your mood) on.

SEE: Top 20 Apple keyboard shortcuts for business users (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

There's a separate issue with the ultra-low-travel "butterfly switch" keyboard found on the MacBook Pro, which has anecdotally high failure rates. Apple now offers to fix affected systems for free for three years, though the issue prompted a class action lawsuit against Apple last May. Daring Fireball's John Gruber--a noteworthy longtime Apple user--called them "the worst products in Apple history... doing lasting harm to the reputation of the MacBook brand."

The inefficiency of keyboards

There are many commonly-held beliefs about how the QWERTY keyboard emerged, though the explanation that the key layout was intended to prevent jamming by spreading out letters does not hold up well to scrutiny--the "er" pairing is the fourth most common in the English language.

However, there is room for improvement, at least in theory. In 2016, the French Standardization Association AFNOR (Association Française de Normalisation) began development of a replacement for the AZERTY standard used commonly in France. Using statistical models of character use in French, sourced from newspaper articles, Wikipedia, legal documents, and less explicitly prosaic texts such as email, social media posts, and programming code, a new keyboard layout was devised. The algorithm used can be adapted to other languages, as "it simply requires data for modelling," according to researchers.

The potential for voice control

Controlling computers with voice has gone from science fiction, to sitcom joke, to reality. Presently, voice control is generally limited to simple tasks, with research from voice security firm Pindrop finding that at home, 33% use voice for internet searches, and 29% to check news, while only 18% use it to dictate emails. Overall, Pindrop claims that "63% use voice control at home, work or while out and about; only 14% won't use it at home."

The potential for voice control at work seems is met with comparatively less enthusiasm, with 1 in 5 expecting to never use voice controls at work. Certainly, working with others can complicate the potential applicability of using voice--having 20 people attempt to dictate an email, simultaneously, in an open office floor plan is practically a recipe for disaster.

Ultimately, the prospect of keyboards being completely outmoded by touchscreens and voice controls is a remote one, though room for improvement certainly exists. Fitness for purpose should remain the highest priority in assessing what tools are used for a given task--programmers dictating code through voice is an absurd concept, though telling your phone an item to add to a grocery list is not. While a multimodal experience appears is likely the future of computing, that should not be considered an excuse to make keyboards a second-class citizen.

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