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The End of Keyboards: A Question of “When?”

On Wikipedia, the definition of a keyboard is a “typewriter-style device, which uses an arrangement of buttons or keys, to act as mechanical levers or electronic switches”. In an age where technology is seemingly magical in its state of advancement, our beloved peripheral is starting to feel more like a relic than a modern input device.

As attached as I am to keyboards, I have clear vision to the light at the end of the tunnel. With the prevalence of pen inputs, touch screens, voice commands and other new ways of using technology, its time for us all to admit; The keyboard era is coming to an end.

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Humble Beginnings

In the early 1900s, Charles & Howard Krum worked with an engineer named Frank Pearne to develop the earliest tele-type keyboards. People were using them to transmit stock market data around the country. These devices were derived directly from Typewriters of the 1860s.

I don’t know about you, but there’s no other peripheral that I’m using today with my computer from the 1800s. Even modern printers — which you could argue are on their way out as well — are fundamentally different from their printing ancestors.

The keyboard has, however, stood the test of time. Even the QWERTY layout in typewriters from 1874 by Sholes & Glidden that were challenged by the likes of the Dvorak layout to attempt to drive change and improve efficiency in typing have proven unfruitful.

Your keyboard keeps this picture of his mom in his wallet.

Your keyboard keeps this picture of his mom in his wallet.

Feeling a Connection

My theory is this; humans, for better or worse, need to feel some connection to the things they use. In the same way Pareidolia makes us see smiling clouds or the man on the moon, or that creepy Mars face, keyboards have become for millions of people, an attachment object, or “security blanket” if you will.

Any time you go to use a computer, when you see a keyboard, you probably feel comfortable interacting with it in some way. Keyboards are our attachment objects to computers, a “security blanket” making us feel at home and sooth our worries. Attachment objects are just like Pareidolia, in it that they are part of a need to connect with something emotionally to help us deal with our environment.

In child psychology, Donald Winnicott championed the concept of transitional objects and transitional experience. These are parts of all of our development. The “transition” speaks of an object or experience that helps change our mental models and eventually overcome the crippling dependence of our attachment objects, like the way a child may use a blanket or stuffed animal to help them cope with sleeping in their own bed.

While keyboards aren’t quite like being attached to our parents, its not uncommon for us to become emotional over inanimate objects or fantasy worlds — Just look at the 2008 study, where Sony’s AIBO robotic pet was found to decrease loneliness in the elderly living in nursing homes, or this not-so scientific 2009 study about World of Warcraft accounts.

You Keep Me Happy, When Skies Are Grey

Now, I know this may all sound silly, but hear me out. Keyboards are our attachment objects. If you talk to most software designers or developers, who are generally early adopters and champions of change and new exciting technologies and experiences, they clam up at the idea of loosing their precious keyboards.

I’ve found in casual surveys that I’m part of a minority who is excited to see keyboards pass along into the nether realm, only to hang out with Scorpion and Shang Tsung. See, even though I depend on keyboards to do my job, I’ve never been one to settle on one solution to a complex problem, like how to interact with a computer.

It’s why I’ve never understood people bashing skeuomorphic design trends. They exist for a reason and provide people a visual “security blanket” that creates context for people to understand how to use something without needing an explanation or manual. Sorry for the mini rant, but I had to get that out there. I’d pay for therapy, but I can just vent at you guys, and have you scream at me in the comments section, it’s actually pretty therapeutic.

This is your QWERTY intervention. We're here because we love you.

This is your keyboard intervention. We’re here because we love you.

The “Keyboarders” Argument

“How will you write the software so someone else doesn’t have to use keyboards?”

It always seems to be the same basic argument from people why they need precious keyboards so badly. They tell me things like “It’s the fastest way to get things done!”, or “You can’t write a program without a keyboard!”, and if the conversation goes on long enough, we may even end up with questions like “How will new languages be written?” and “How will you write the software so someone else doesn’t have to use keyboards?”.

When all of these fail to create a compelling story for why we need keyboards, an argument that is hard to make in my opinion, eventually the debate starts boiling down to attacks on the other popular inputs.

People say things like “Voice recognition just isn’t there yet.” and “Gesture control sucks!” as if they’re all quaffing from the same jug of home-row fruit punch. So here’s what I’ll do. I’ll break down each of these arguments for you and we’ll see where they take us.

The Fastest Way to Get Things Done?

First, “keyboards are the fastest way to get things done”. Let’s start with a basic fact, writer Barbara Blackburn, set a world record for typing in 2005 on an english keyboard. One of those fancy Dvorak ones at that (meaning she had the efficiency most could only hope to achieve with one of our standard QWERTY keyboards).

With a more efficient keyboard than the one used by most people, she averaged about 170 words per minute (wpm) over 50 minutes, and came as high as 212 wpm at top speed. While this is an absolute marvel to me that she could pump out an article like this one in about 10 minutes, it’s disappointingly slow in comparison to human speech.

John Moschitta, Jr., scored a world record of 586 wpm, and was later beaten out by Steve Woodmore, who achieved a rate of 637 wpm. Even the average adult reads at 250-300 words per minute. Meaning its safe to say that keyboards are holding us back in terms of our brain being able to process ideas. So, if you can picture me doing a Boston accent, “ya wicked wrong kid”.

The Software Argument?

Now, let’s tackle these next ones all in a big group: “You can’t write a program without a keyboard!”, “How will new languages be written?” and “How will you write the software so someone else doesn’t have to use keyboards?”.

The core of these arguments is based on something that is currently true — people are trained to use the input devices of their day. If it was the 1950s, we’d all be masters of rotary telephones, but today’s teenagers may not have ever used or seen one before. Software today is designed for the use of keyboards and mice.

“software changes based on the way we interact with computers”

Software developers are so authoritarian about using their keyboards that many of them consider programmers who reach for their mice as undedicated, undisciplined, and beneath them. This is an especially frustrating argument to have.

The truth for designers is that you can’t use Photoshop or Illustrator without a mouse unless you have some special peripheral, or other extreme circumstances. All Adobe software is a testament to software designed to be used with a mouse. Look at something like Photoshop Touch on the iPad. There are parts of it that feel familiar, and yet it’s fundamentally different.

When you look at apps like “Clear” for the iPhone, the entire interface would feel awkward if you asked it to be applied to a mouse and keyboard environment. The point is, software changes based on the way we interact with computers, so with prevalent new inputs, so will some redesigned, custom software.

Could Photoshop Touch be a blueprint for the future of Design software?

Could Photoshop Touch be a blueprint for the future of Design software?

Other Solutions Aren’t There Yet?

Finally, we come to “Voice recognition just isn’t there yet.” and “Gesture control sucks!”. These arguments make me start to lose hope for the human race. Are we all so comfortable with our 100+ button boards that we lack the imagination to think about other possibilities?

During a keynote, Steve Jobs famously said that death would take care of people who didn’t know how to type. Later on, his company led the charge to make touch and voice inputs mainstream on mobile devices. The device that Apple was concerned not enough people knew, they’re now actively trying to replace.

“These kids wont grow up with the same endearment for these clunky, wrist destroying input devices we known all of our lives.”

So, I could rest on my laurels and simply say that death will eventually take care of the people who think that their keyboards are “all that and a bag of potato chips”. What I’d rather show you is the hundreds or even thousands of videos on the internet of children using smartphones and tablets. These kids won’t grow up with the same endearment for these clunky, wrist destroying input devices we known all of our lives. They may be making the argument “How will you use a computer if you can’t talk to it?” or “Why can’t I push anything on this screen?”.

Indeed you can see the trends of console video game systems by Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft all reaching out to embrace new and innovative ways of interacting with entertainment that simply didn’t exist when some of their target demographics were born.

The Future Is…

I should be clear about something. This isn’t an article talking about how voice control, gestures, touch or anything else is coming to destroy keyboards. It’s about the things we can’t even fathom that will create such compelling experiences, and create new efficiencies that people will be happy to rid themselves of keyboards.

The same way that mapping the genome led to medical advances, mapping the mind may give us similarly new technological insights and abilities. I know someone like me comes around every 6 months to tell you that we wont have keyboards in 30 years. I’m just saying that the irrefutable fact is, whether you believe it or not, it’s now more evocative of reality than ever before.

If you believe (like me) that the future will look more like Star Trek than it will Mad Max, then you have to believe that the people clinging to keyboards will more likely be museum curators than software developers.

I know which one I am, which one are you?