Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Future Without Keyboards

My crystal ball isn't any clearer than anyone else's, but I'm beginning to think that I've glimpsed a future without keyboards. Or at least a future where keyboards will be considered niche devices by the vast majority of the population.

Palm TX Personal Digital AssistantI've been using one Palm personal digital assistant or another for years, ever since Mrs. Overclock (a.k.a. Dr. Overclock, Medicine Woman) introduced me to them. My latest, a Palm T|X, incorporates both a BlueTooth and a WiFi radio. Somewhat to my surprise, the included web browser has proven to actually be quite usable. I routinely use the pocket-sized device to check my electronic mail, particularly while travelling without my laptop, and even to do some web cruising. Now I wonder how I ever did without it. I did buy a wireless keyboard for the T|X (it actually connects via the infrared port), but I seldom use it. What little typing I have to do I find that I can make do with the character recognition or the on-screen keyboard.

My experience over a decade ago with the very early Sharp Zaurus PDA, which had a tiny keyboard, has convinced me that such keyboards are just about useless. I want either a more-or-less full size keyboard suitable for touch typing, or no keyboard at all. My experience, mostly bad, trying to text from my Motorola RAZR phone hasn't done anything to change my mind.

Being a developer, I naturally thought about trying to develop for the PalmOS platform. Years ago I poked around a little, even tried the recommended development environment (CodeWarrior). But in the end I decided it wasn't worth my time, deciding instead to concentrate on more mainstream systems like Linux. In hindsight that was the right decision. Even Palm apparently thinks so.

TiVo "Peanut" RemoteMrs. Overclock also insisted that we get a TiVo, the Linux-based DVR that so many have described (accurately as it turns out) as a life changing experience. It's easy to love the TiVo on-screen user interface. It's a remarkable UI that can please both a cynical thirty year veteran of the Coding Wars and a simple country doctor. One of the things about the UI that impressed me is how functional it was using just the "peanut", the TiVo remote which has not much more than a numeric keypad, some arrow keys, and a select button. I routinely find myself "typing" in the name of a television program using just a few presses of these simple controls. Keyboard neither required nor necessary.

My friend and embedded wonk Todd Blachowiak put me onto the Nokia N800 internet appliance. This is a pocket-sized device not much bigger than the T|X that also includes BlueTooth and WiFi radios, an FM tuner, a CCD camera, two speakers, a microphone, a microphone and headset jack, and it runs Linux. Digital Aggregates recently purchased one of these gadgets, and I am in the process of setting up a development environment (all open source of course) in the secure underground corporate data center. (Okay, I'm downloading some tar balls onto one of the Linux servers in the basement.) A BlueTooth keyboard is a common accessory for the N800, and in time I'll probably buy one. But so far I've been doing okay without it. I can easily see using this device as an FM and Internet radio, an MP3 player, a VoIP phone, a camera, an RSS reader, a web browser, and an email client. All without a keyboard.
Nokia N800 Internet Appliance

You know how sometimes you hear a new word, then suddenly it's like everyone is using that word in every other sentence and you wonder how you, who considered yourself at least basically functionally literate, are only just now noticing this? This happened to me recently with tablet PCs.

I figured tablet PCs were a real niche until I spend four months working with a developer who used an HP tablet PC on a daily basis. Mike Dierks had a keyboard for his tablet at home, but routinely brought just the tablet to work, and happily used it to take notes in meetings, cruise the web, and review documents, all without benefit of QWERTY. He told me tales of another developer he had worked with that used a Fujitsu tablet as his daily link to the digital domain. Then Mrs. Overclock attended a conference where she talked to another physician who was taking notes on a Toshiba tablet.

It's like y'all decided to throw a tablet PC party, and you didn't invite me.

My experience with the T|X, TiVo, and the N800 were enough to get me thinking about a future without keyboards. Doing without a keyboard suddenly started to seem, well, doable. Oh, sure, I still need a keyboard, and a decent one at that, for a lot of important stuff. Stuff like blogging and coding. But for much of the other stuff for which I use my laptop, I don't need a keyboard at all. In fact, much of the time, the keyboard is just in the way.

So I decided to put my money where my mouth was. Actually, I decided to put my employer's money where my mouth is. When it came time for the company to refresh my ancient but beloved IBM ThinkPad T30 laptop, I chose an Lenovo ThinkPad X61 tablet to replace it.

Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (transforming)The X61 tablet is both a laptop and a tablet. It opens like and can be used as a conventional laptop. In this mode it fits in the ultra-portable category, weighting in at about four pounds depending on the battery. But the screen can pivot 180 degrees and fold down flat against the keyboard, forming a tablet. It's screen uses Wacom digitizer tablet technology, and a digitizer pen pops out from its hiding place beneath the keyboard. I love the fact that I can use it conventionally to enter text and code, but then in a few seconds convert it to tablet mode for convenient web cruising.

Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (tablet)When using Google Reader to keep up with my RSS feeds, the tablet absolutely rocks. It's as if BoingBoing and Stuff On My Cat were published in a book. A high resolution, high contrast, interactive, multimedia book. I feel like Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Reading Salon is like reading a magazine in meatspace. I'm just glad we have WiFi coverage in the bathrooms.

I won't bore you with an in-depth review of the X61 (I love it; the jury is still out on Windows Vista). Those are available elsewhere. Perusing tablet PC sales figures published on the web, it's hard to draw any conclusions, except maybe sales are "slowly gaining momentum". So this probably falls under the "90% crap" that is the subtitle of this blog. But I think I have seen the future. And tablets (particularly convertible tablets, like the X61) are it.

Update (2008-07-08)

And now a comment from the loyal opposition (which would still be me). Digital Aggregates recently purchased the new Nokia N810 Internet Tablet. Its major differences from the N800 is that it has a GPS receiver and built-in maps, and (more pertinently) a slide-down QWERTY keyboard. I admit that the addition of the keyboard (and the GPS) make it a more functional tool for traveling, particularly sans laptop. The N810 is actually a little slimmer than the N800. It fits nicely in a small briefcase, courier bag, motorcycle tank bag, or carry-on bag. Nokia N810 Internet Tablet

Update (2009-10-26)

Just a couple of quick updates.

Windows Vista has pretty much been a major disaster for me. Unstable, unusable, and very very very slow. So much so that about a year ago I replaced my ThinkPad X61t with a MacBook Air as my principal laptop for everyday use and for travel. I have never regretted it.

Apple Macbook Air Laptop (Open)Apple MacBook Air Laptop (Closed)

But I kept the ThinkPad around because there were a few applications that I couldn't or didn't want to migrate to the Mac. This past weekend I did a clean install on the ThinkPad of Windows 7. With just a minor effort I have made the ThinkPad much more usable, faster, and (so far) much more stable. The tablet functionality even seems to work (although I've barely had enough time to do some simple tests).

Give the horror that was Vista, I am kind of impressed.

I also recently upgraded my old Motorola RAZR mobile phone. Given this article you might guess I upgraded it to an iPhone, or a Palm Pre, or maybe an Android. Nope, I went with a Blackberry Tour 9630. Yeah, that's right, a smartphone with a tiny hardware keyboard.

There were a few reasons. I needed a phone with internet and SMS capabilities. My provider is Verizon, and I wanted to stay with them. But the most difficult issue was I wanted a world phone, a phone that would work with both CDMA and GSM, the two predominant cellular standards. The only phone that fit my globe trotting requirements was the Tour.

So far I've been quite happy with it. I was able to keep on top of my email on a recent trip to Montreal and Quebec City. Coverage was adequate even recently in parts of southern New Mexico.

I'm sure I'll upgrade sometime to a smarter-phone with a touch sensitive screen. But the Blackberry meets my needs for the time being.

Update (2010-08-09)

Blackberry Bold 9650I just recently replaced my Blackberry Tour with the Blackberry Bold 9650, which as the model number might suggest is a really a Tour II. The Tour was the greatest tool since sliced bread for travel, including overseas travel. But I fell victim to the hideous mechanical trackball that struck so many other Tour users. The headphone jack on my second Tour quit working, and that was the last straw. The Bold has everything the Tour has, including CDMA, UMTS, and GSM capabilities, plus WiFi. Best of all, it replaces the mechanical trackball with an optical trackpad. Like the Tour, the Bold has a real (tiny) keyboard.

The Bold is great for phone calls (in the U.S., England, Australia, and New Zealand, as I was to find out) and for keeping up with electronic mail. The browser kind of sucks, partly because it is very slow, and partly because of the tiny screen. (To be fair, the smalls screens on the competing smart phones aren't any better for my middle-aged eyes.)

I recently also became an avid user of a Apple 3G iPad. I recommend the 3G model even if you aren't planning on getting AT&T data service (although I did), because the 3G chipset includes a GPS unit which the WiFi-only model iPad lacks. The GPS alone is worth the extra bucks, to me anyway. I mostly love the gesture interface of the iPad, but typing anything of any length on it is painful with the on-screen keyboard. There is a real keyboard available for the iPad, but I have resisted buying it. If I'm going to cart around the iPad plus a separate keyboard, it's easier for me to tote my slim and light MacBook Air laptop. The Air has WiFi, of course, but I can also tether it to my Blackberry for Internet access over the cellular network. The iPad has a larger display, and is superior for web cruising, and it is acceptable for basic email. But it will never completely replace my Air, from which I can print and which supports Flash, neither of which the iPad supports. Sometimes I travel with the iPad, sometimes with the Air, depending on where I am going, for how long, and what I am going to do with I get there.

Apple First Generation 3G iPadApple First Generation 3G iPad

The war of keyboard versus no keyboard continues.

Update (2012-12-18)

I had been doing a lot of low level development on the Android platform using both a BeagleBoard and the Hardkernel ODROID-A4 Samsung Galaxy hardware reference platform. So it only seemed appropriate that Mrs. Overclock give me a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7" Android tablet for my birthday last year. Thanks, Mrs. O! The smaller form factor has been a hit. While I frequently travel with the larger iPad, the smaller Tab fits well in the messenger bag I typically take to customer sites. I have customers who are using the Google cloud for a lot of infrastructure services including electronic mail, and the Tab integrates well with those.

Samsung 7" Galaxy Tab 2 Tablet

I have been well served for years by a series of Blackberries. But recently on a trip, my Blackberry Bold failed me in a minor but severely annoying way: the alarm clock app failed to go off two mornings in a row, allowing the jetlagged-me to oversleep. Nothing like that mad scramble to make a breakfast meeting. Subsequent testing has suggested that this wasn't pilot error on my part, but likely some weird software bug. I am very unforgiving about some things.

So a few days ago I walked into the local Apple store and walked out thirty minutes later with a Verizon iPhone 5, a device which like the Bold groks both CDMA and GSM, plus WiFi, and also serves as a WiFi hot spot to use with my tablets and laptops. And I bought a nice alarm clock app for it, which I have tested at home before I rely on it on a trip.

Apple iPhone 5

Both of these devices have soft keyboards. I'm not an expert at using the tiny soft keyboard on the iPhone, but for what I use it for, I find it completely acceptable, particularly in landscape mode.

Update (2013-02-02)

And once again, my loyal opposition speaks.

I continue to believe that the trend for information production and consumption will be increasingly cloud based. If you are as old as I am -- and I am so old that I'm basically a brain in a jar connected to wires and tubes -- you will recognize that this pattern has happened many times in the past.

If you are just slightly ancient, you will remember thin clients supporting windowing systems like X11 talking to remote servers. A little older, then maybe you used diskless Sun workstations that relied on Sun servers you may never have had a reason to see. If you are really  ancient, you may recall IBM 3270 terminals talking to distant IBM 370 mainframes. And if you are spending all of your time sitting in a rocking chair feeding squirrels, you might even have used remote card readers feeding batch jobs to IBM 360 systems far away and behind locked doors. I used all of these things at some point in my career.

And all of those trends came and went for good economic, technical, cultural, and political reasons, as market pressures cause a continual cycling between centralization and decentralization. So when I say this trend of increasingly mobile, wireless, handheld devices talking to vast cloud-based server farms will continue, I mean until something changes.

Part of this is being driven by the fact that most people use the internet to consume content, not to produce it. But if you are a content producer -- and by content I mean anything from articles for magazines behind a paywall to commercial graphics to web comics to short films to complex software systems -- then you may be in a niche that needs specialized tools. For me, who am called upon to slam out code from time to time, that means a big display, a finger-friendly keyboard, and an exceptional mouse.


So here's what my desktop development environment in my home office -- which is better than what I am provided at any client site -- has looked like for some time now. Counterclockwise from the top: an Apple Mac Mini used mostly as a window server, a big beautiful 27" Apple LED Cinema Display, a relatively gigantic Matias Tactile Pro keyboard (based on the original 3270 electromechanical keyboard, itself based on the old IBM Selectric typewriter keyboard), and a wireless rechargeable Logitech Performance MX mouse.

I've heard people say "I do a lot of typing and I do just fine with my iPad". That's crap. What they mean is "I answer a lot of email with short replies and I do just fine with my iPad". If called upon to write the equivalent number of keystrokes in Leo Tolstoy's 1500 page War and Peace (or, more recently, Neal Stephenson's 1000 page REAMDE that Mrs. Overclock is reading right now), they will quickly find out that the iPad is sorely lacking in the content generation department. That is, if their eyes and fingers survive the experience.

There are some jobs that will always require a good keyboard.


Tom O'Dell said...

Unlike the esteemed and feared Mr. Overclock, I will never be more than a third-rate technogeek, barely capable of writing simple UNIX scripts from scratch. However, I have an odd attraction to shiny buttons and flashing lights that probably dates back to seeing Star Trek:TOS in syndication in the 70's.

As such, I'm quite happy that handwriting recognition has progressed as far as it has, and I agree that the tablet is the shape of things to come. It's just a matter of what size and features the tablets will have. However, as I realized when reading criticisms of Apple's iPhone, touchscreens cannot do EVERYTHING. Most notably, they generally cannot (unless you're very, very good) work effectively to replace touch typing.

Therefore, I think the OTHER wave of the future, the one that will complement all of those touchscreens, will be voice recognition. But some, like yours truly, really DON'T like talking out loud to my laptop or my cell phone. Nor, given how bad people are with cell phones now, do I want to listen to everyone with no sense of etiquette talking LOUDLY to their tablet device.

So, I suggest that an even more useful branch of voice recognition will be sub-audible or non-audible voice recognition. I apologize if there are actual terms for this already, but what I'm referring to is the ability to interpret speech based on lip, tongue, and jaw movements, without requiring external vocalization.

Granted, the end result will look even weirder than cellphone users with those Borg-like bluetooth earpieces, but I for one would welcome this wonderful future all the more if it's not filled with unnecessary chatter!

Hopefully, however technology evolves, the new tablet devices and the software written for them will be designed and built with a higher degree of quality, or at least more reasonably priced based on their current quality. I have, at least temporarily, ditched my Palm T|X for my old Palm m500 due to a series (or maybe just a cluster) of awkward hardware and software issues with the former.

Chip Overclock said...

Good points.

Over a decade ago I worked with a technical writer (Hi, Nancy!) who used a voice recognition system to generate rough drafts that she would later revise in a more conventional manner. I was impressed. It took some training on the part of both the user and the software, but she was able to generate text at a good clip, and even make corrections as she did so. Surely this technology is even better now.

I think the term you might be looking for is "sub-vocalization". I'm sure you've seen it used many times in SF novels, and I always thought it was as you describe.

You may also recall that in his Hugo nominated book RAINBOWS END, Vernor Vinge describes a system of gesturing and facial expressions as a mode of input. Pretty cool. You ARE the mouse.

Anonymous said...

I'm shocked that you didn't immediately put Linux on it! And you call yourself a geek. Hmph!

Of course, there is the little thing of handwriting recognition under Linux...

Chip Overclock said...

Linux is still the leading operating system at the Palatial Overclock Estate (or as the media insists on calling it, the Heavily Armed Overclock Compound). Windows of one vintage or another comes in a distant second. PalmOS comes in third, only because Mrs. Overclock and I both carry Palm PDAs. MacOS and VxWorks tie for fourth. While I appreciate that many of my readers are card carrying members of the Linux fundamentalist cult, it is just not always the best tool for the job at hand.

I'm a little surprised that Linux is the OS of choice for our servers and for our embedded applications. It's at the far ends of the computing power spectrum, with Windows et al. entrenched in the middle.