Childhood tech exposure is slowly killing the keyboard

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I see the disturbing trend away from keyboards as input devices – and I’m talking about a real physical keyboard. This is not a keyboard killing decision, but an aggregate that is slowly changing the landscape. If you blink, you’ll miss it. We won’t find ourselves in a world without keyboards, but in a world where most available keyboards suck.

The rise of the generation of virtual keyboards

Is scanning typing the future of coding?

Tablets are great for messing around, but when you want to get real work done in a reasonable amount of time, you grab a physical keyboard. In this scenario, I don’t see that the problem is that people in the workforce are giving up keyboards; it is the way the younger generations learn to interact with technology that is troubling. The touchscreen is baby’s first computer. Families get together and children receive tablets from their parents while adults watch the game. More and more schools are equipping classrooms with tablets, and for that I am an advocate. It is imperative to involve children early in technology; knowledge evolves much faster than printed textbooks. The tablet is a powerful tool in both of these areas. But most of the time kids spend on the screen is with touch screens and no physical keyboard.

How much time do K-12 kids spend in front of a physical keyboard? In the United States, while keyboard (typing) lessons exist in a public school curriculum, they are typically only one semester long. Students who spend half of elementary school using a tablet and only one semester on a keyboard will likely prefer touchscreen input to a physical keyboard.

Keyboard erosion

We have already seen a strong push for touch screens in laptops with the growth of the tablet market. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Think of the computer mouse, it didn’t replace the keyboard, but increased it and is now seen as a tool that itself is a necessity.

The scenario that I hope I never see is that laptop makers decide the market isn’t demanding keyboards at a rate high enough to make them standard. If you already made a touchscreen on your last laptop, you can save a lot of money by getting rid of all those keys.

I know what you are thinking … just get an external keyboard. Most hardcore iPad users I know have a Bluetooth keyboard built into the case so they can get the typing work done when they need it. These keyboards are better than a virtual keyboard, but lack compared to a proper physical keyboard. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s not the direction I want to see the computer industry going.

Even though the keyboard is not eliminated, I find the erosion of the quality of the keyboard disturbing. My travel machine is an exquisite Acer C720 Chromebook (4GB, 128GB SSD, matte display for those who care). I chroot under Linux thanks to the wonderful Open Source project: Crouton. It does pretty much everything I need and I’m pretty happy with it except the keyboard.

I previously owned the C710 which has a full keyboard. In the newer 1 gen C720, they relegated the pgup, pgdn, home, end, and del keys as keyboard shortcut remaps. The ChromeOS-specific keys at the top don’t even have enough to remap like all F keys.

Of course, I say “full keyboard” when talking about the C710 and yet I often cringe at the missing 10-key numeric keypad. The point is, we are losing keys due to keyboard erosion which affects productivity.

The ebb and flow of keyboard teaching

Photo of Bryan Anselm for the WSJ
photo by Bryan Anselm for the WSJ

All is not lost, and that’s part of why I’m writing this diatribe well researched opinion piece. Computer literacy was strongly linked to better access to better employment opportunities. At the same time, in the United States, the core requirements for schools are stimulate computer literacy programs because the tests are not done on paper, not on tablets, but on real computers. Can you imagine writing a test on paper if you only held a pencil for one semester in your first six years of school? This is the scenario some students face with computerized testing.

Of course, if you take a close look at these images, you’ll see that the computers these schools are using are Acer C720 Chromebooks – one of the reasons I raked its keyboard over the coals in the previous section. Yet what I’m looking for is a common consensus that typing skills are a necessary part of education. So I’ll take the keyboard time I can get for our students.

Numbers

You can’t talk about this problem without trying to quantify the differences, but it actually turns out to be quite difficult to do. There are a lot of factors at play here. For example, typing speed isn’t the only thing to consider, there is also user satisfaction which is heavily influenced by personal preferences. Thus, one set of data does not govern them all. However, I know of a few studies that I can loosely relate to and unscientifically to make my point.

Virtual keyboards of various sizes have been tested
Virtual keyboards of various sizes have been tested

A research team compared typing on the iPad’s virtual keyboard to typing on a Netbook (yes, it dates from 2010). This showed that typing on the Netbook was faster, but pointed out that at that time physical keyboards were most familiar to people. Think of all the kids blazing through petabytes of text messages from tiny, cheap smartphones right now. A real race should involve this type of skill practiced. There is data available that indicates whether you need to type on a virtual keyboard, bigger is much better.

I would also dispute that typing on a tablet’s virtual keyboard in landscape mode sucks because you consume so much screen space. So people tend to go for a slim keyboard that sits in the iPad shell. There is also a study for that which compare physical keyboards with thin intended for tablets. The bottom line is that the thicker the better. The haptic feedback of full keys is a win there.

Maybe i cry wolf

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe those who need a keyboard – the programmers, copywriters, and data entry specialists of the world – will find their way to a quality keyboard and develop the skills they need to use it. Even in our own Hackaday team, we have people who swear by their hardware. I only have eyes for a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic, while [Brian Benchoff] will compete from dusk until dawn for his Torpres and MX Blues. Yet I think waiting too long to master the best human-made interface tool puts our children at a disadvantage. And I want to know that any computer my heart desires comes standard with a keyboard that is worth using.

What do you think? Are we training legions of tech-savvy hackers who won’t have real typing skills? Will technology increase and replace the physical keyboard with something better? Or should we spread the Church’s gospel of keyboarding? Join the discussion in the comments below.

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