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Operating Systems

Does the iPhone need a real keyboard?

For many, the iPhone's virtual keyboard remains its Achilles' heel. Chances are Apple won't do an iPhone with a physical keyboard, but if it ultimately wants to lure away more BlackBerry users, it may have to.


iPhone Keyboard
Does the next iPhone need a slide-out keyboard?

Yes, the touch screen doesn't cut it for heavy texting.
No, the touch-screen keyboard works perfectly well.

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The other day, as I sat waiting for Jeff Bezos to appear in an auditorium to announce the new Kindle DX, I was surrounded by iPhones. Literally. Two people to my right, two people in front of me, and three people in back of me were all tapping out IMs or e-mails on their iPhones. What struck me was how awkward most of these people looked, tapping away with a single finger, laboring to type sentences just a few lines long.

Now I know some people can type quickly using the iPhone's virtual keyboard. A week earlier I'd witnessed a woman, her iPhone sitting on a table, taping with two fingers at a highly elevated rate (the rat-tat-tat of her typing on the table was quite noisy, which drew onlookers). But there are still a lot of people out there who just can't get used to typing on the iPhone. And many a BlackBerry user has told me she will never be able to switch to the iPhone because she needs a physical keyboard.

My wife is a case in point. She lives on her Blackberry and can type emails with astonishing speed. When she was required recently to get a "personal" cell phone separate from her work cell phone, she opted to get the exact same BlackBerry Curve on AT&T that she used for work--even though she could have gotten the iPhone for the same price (at least in terms of hardware costs). She's a BlackBerry user through and through, even after a couple of her BlackBerries broke (more on that in a minute).

I wouldn't be the first to suggest that Apple make a slider version of the iPhone that would incorporate a physical keyboard. On a lot of levels, it would make a lot of sense. Apple could do a so-called consumer version of the iPhone, as well as a model that had a slightly more corporate bent to take on BlackBerry directly in that market. (The BlackBerry Curve did outsell the iPhone last quarter).

However, the iPhone's virtual keyboard is tied into an overarching Apple design philosophy for the device, and chances are very slim Apple will alter the iPhone hardware beyond a few small tweaks. From a software standpoint, where the biggest changes will come, one of the key additions in iPhone 3.0 OS is native support for a landscape (horizontal) virtual keyboard, which would allow you to go to a more ergonomic two-thumbed approach and should make the overall typing experience significantly better. True, that functionality has been available for a while--but only through third-party apps that only a small minority of users download.

The rumored Motorola Android phone looks a lot like my dream iPhone. The Boy Genius Report

Why didn't Apple offer a landscape mode for the keyboard from the get-go? That's one of those Apple mysteries that's hard to solve along with "The Case of the missing stereo Bluetooth," "Voice dialing, where are you?", and the ever popular "Waiting for cut and paste," an existential drama in three acts. Word is these features should be available in iPhone 3.0.

Will having a native landscape mode for the virtual keyboard satisfy BlackBerry keyboard aficionados? Probably not. As good as Apple's virtual keyboard might be for a virtual keyboard you'll still have millions of people who only feel comfortable with a physical keyboard.

Personally, I'm partial to hard keyboards and I initially liked the slide-out keyboard on my Sprint Mogul, though I still miss the feel of the Blackberry keyboard on my ancient, e-mail-only BlackBerry 857. However, there is one big strike against physical keyboards: because you have moving parts involved, they tend to be plagued by mechanical failures over time. My Mogul keyboard is on the fritz, and some days I want to throw the phone against the wall (my contract is up in June, which is when I will replace it). Fellow editor John Falcone, who got his Mogul at around the same time I did, is also having problem with his keyboard, which leads me to believe many physical keyboards simply have a limited lifespan. In the case of the Mogul, which is made by HTC, the problem may involve the sliding mechanism and the connection between the keyboard and the phone's motherboard--not necessarily the keys themselves.

Blackberry keyboards tend to be pretty durable. But my wife's scroll wheel on two her older Blackberries died from heavy use. Apparently, this problem was widespread because in future devices Blackberry moved to a trackball in the Curve. But it, too, can develop problems over time as dust and dirt from your fingers clog things up--just like with a computer trackball.

Clearly, by going with a virtual keyboard--and a pure touch interface--Apple and AT&T have managed to avoid customer-service headaches related to the breakdown of broken parts associated with physical keyboards, navigational joysticks, trackballs, or scroll wheels. When an iPhone gets screwed up, it tends to involve a bum battery, some form of mysterious internal glitch that causes intermittent freezes/shutdowns or battery drains--or someone just dropping the phone. At least those are the problems I hear about.

But even as I point out the downsides to physical keyboards, I'd still opt for an iPhone with a slide-out "hard" keyboard if given the choice. That's part of the reason why I'll take a long look at the Palm Pre when it comes out around the same time the third-generation iPhone does (both are expected to arrive in June) and anything new and interesting BlackBerry has on tap.

What do you guys think? Any iPhone owners still struggling with the keyboard? Or is it just fine the way it is and will only get better with a native landscape mode?