TechRepublic's James Sanders spoke with Oblong CEO John Underkoffler about the proliferation of touch screens, and how some professionals still prefer the tactile qualities of a hardware keyboard similar to classic BlackBerry devices and the Nokia N900. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
James Sanders: There's been an increase in Android smartphones with physical keyboards as vendors try to differentiate products to fit different modalities. The first of these, like the BlackBerry KEYone use portrait mode, though competing vendors are opting for a landscape mode hearkening back the Nokia N900. What should designers keep in mind when adapting a fundamentally touch-based, portrait style OS for these form factors?
John Underkoffler: I guess the question around physical keyboards is whether we consider that we're learning and designing something for the first time or that we're coming back to something that we used to be pretty good at that at least offers some lessons for forward design. There are some people who've been around long enough or who's job title put them squarely in the bulls-eye of BlackBerry-style physical keyboards who really mourned its passing when there was no longer an option for a decent phone with a decent physical keyboard and it all became virtual.
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We know the reasons that virtual keyboards are great. We can switch languages and so forth. But there are unambiguously certain advantages to a physical keyboard. Where your eyes are, where your eyes go. The certainty of the interface. These are not insubstantial characteristics. So the opportunities around reintroducing the physical keyboard I think are large. The downside, of course, is that it would seem that there's less available display space, although I don't know, is anyone building a continuous display phone with a keyboard that's nonetheless built in and physically raised? That would be something.
I haven't at all answered the question that you actually asked, and I'm sorry about that. I'll try in the next two seconds to do that. There's not a big difference when designing UIs in terms of where you put information. If we consider a portrait mode virtual keyboard versus physical keyboard, because in one case or the other your fingers are covering up that area. So it doesn't matter whether there would be pixels underneath or not. Although, to be fair, when you use a virtual keyboard, you probably end up looking squarely at it, looking between your two thumbs.
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So the opportunity, if we're gonna grab a new opportunity with a return to physical keyboards, it might be around the idea that we know that your eyes don't need to be on the keyboard, you can touch type, as it were. And then on top of that it might be nice to put some visual feedback hovering north of, as it were, the keyboard in your mutable pixel area. But it'll remain to be seen whether we get new advantage out of the physical keyboard beyond just the return to what people really, really loved back in the days of the BlackBerry.
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James Sanders is a technology writer for TechRepublic. He covers future technology, including quantum computing, AI, and 5G, as well as cloud, security, open source, mobility, and the impact of globalization on the industry, with a focus on Asia.