Would a Phone With a Keyboard Be Feasible Anymore?

If you were a teenager in the very early years of the 2000s, you probably remember people using a kind of phone whose screen could be slid to reveal a QWERTY keyboard underneath, just like the one you use on a laptop. The Danger Hiptop (also branded as the T-Mobile Sidekick) was all the rage up until the year 2011 when everyone was already transitioning and comfortable with the touchscreen keyboards of today’s smartphones. That doesn’t stop other initiatives from trying to bring these devices back with new and creative design choices. Planet Computers’ Gemini is one such example. But will it fly with the public?

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Before smartphones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) reigned supreme. It was an unstoppable train in the early 2000s, making it easy for busy people who were always on the run to communicate and write emails. PDAs weren’t seen as a replacement for phones, but rather as an accessory for quick communication via text.

Then the Blackberry came around and stole the spotlight. The device sported a screen and a keyboard like every other PDA out there but could also act as a phone that didn’t look awkward while you were putting it up to your ear. The ergonomics factor plus the ability to write emails speedily meant that this kind of device quickly replaced both PDAs and cell phones as tools of business. In 2002 the Blackberry appealed to business customers while the T-Mobile Sidekick started to grab attention on the broader consumer market.

By 2008, the keyboard era was over when the Apple iPhone was first released. This was it. Although many people thought it was absurd to have a non-tactile virtual keyboard slapped onto a screen as opposed to a hardware keyboard, most of them quickly embraced the change once they held an iPhone in their hands.

Since 2011 when the last T-Mobile Sidekick launched, phones with on-screen keyboards were a dying breed. This, of course, didn’t stop companies to continue releasing more models, hoping they’d catch on. The latest was the BlackBerry KeyOne in 2017, a phone that ran Android with some impressive specs, but wasn’t snappy enough to capture any significant victories. There was also the LG Xpression 2 in 2014, a phone that was an unmitigated disaster due to running a proprietary OS and being outcompeted by smartphones that offered more exceptional functionality for a few more bucks.

And then there’s Planet Computers, a startup that started an IndieGoGo campaign for the Gemini, a phone with a tactile hardware keyboard that feels like a laptop’s (only much smaller). The battle ended on April 9, 2017, and reached 284% of its funding goal. There’s apparently still some demand for these kinds of devices, however small it is.

keyboardphone-gemini

Having a tactile keyboard could be attractive for several reasons:

  • It’s harder to mistype something, satisfying the whims of people who are obsessive about their spelling. This is especially true when you’re moving. When you’re a passenger in a vehicle or walking on the street, typing on an actual keyboard makes things so much more comfortable than typing on slippery glass. If you train yourself hard enough, you might not even need to look down at the keys to type!
  • If you have long fingernails, you don’t have to worry about a touchscreen failing to register the fact that you touched it. A touchscreen works by detecting electric fields around your fingers. Your nails don’t do a good job of transmitting that.
  • Older people might have a hard time working with touchscreens but might enjoy using something tactile, especially when they’re less sensitive to pressure, and their eyesight isn’t what it used to be.
  • A keyboard like the Gemini’s makes the job of typing up a long email a little bit easier, albeit not by much.
  • Some people find satisfaction in having a tactile response (i.e., the feeling of pushing a button) when they type.
  • It could (theoretically) be useful for people who have to type up a lot of things while going from place to place, especially if they are continually traveling by air with very little spare luggage space for a laptop.
  • Because the screen is smaller, you can expect a longer battery life.

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Although there will always be a hardcore fanbase for phones with hardware keyboards like the early BlackBerries from “way back when,” it’s still important to ask ourselves why people didn’t just stick to them instead of going for phones with big touchscreens.

  • Tactile keyboards take up vertical space, limiting the amount of hardware that a phone can fit without getting chunky. That’s why the BlackBerry KeyOne released in 2017 had a tiny keyboard in comparison to other models. It was compromising space to fit more hardware on the board. The exception is Gemini, which decided to go the chunky route and just jam a keyboard on top of the board. Basically, if you want a sleek phone, either manufacture it with a tiny keyboard or use no keyboard at all.
  • A virtual keyboard disappears when you don’t need it anymore, freeing up precious screen real estate for you. Again, Gemini is an exception to this since it doesn’t put the screen and the keyboard on the same side of the device. Instead, it’s a flip phone with a similar concept to the T-Mobile Sidekick. Most other phones just slammed the keyboard below the screen, removing available space to display images and applications.
  • If you badly need a tactile keyboard to write something up, you can just buy a physical keyboard that has Bluetooth connectivity and pair it with your phone. Yes, the Gemini has a more substantial keyboard than most other models, but it still suffers from miniaturization. You still have to do some gymnastics with your fingers to type anything up. It’s a challenge that gets old pretty fast.
  • Most tactile keyboards out there lack “flow.” In other words, you have to make an effort to press the keys. It’s by design: If you don’t have this, your leg will press the keys while the phone is in your pocket. Virtual keyboards allow for quick typing, especially with predictive text and autocorrect. And since they’re software-based, there are ways to capitalize on advantages such as swipe-motion word detection (i.e., you can type without lifting your fingers and simply “drawing” the word across keys).
  • If you really want a hyper-productive keyboard that could easily outperform anything a smartphone offers, you can always get a tablet and a roll-up Bluetooth keyboard for maximum portability. The more significant screen size and comfortable operation of the keyboard would make you capable of typing at least 80% as fast as you would on a full-sized regular 104-key device.
  • If you use your phone purely for entertainment purposes and not typing up walls of text, a touchscreen is a no-brainer. Tactile keyboards won’t offer you any perceived advantage.

Sadly for fans of phones with separate QWERTY keyboards, most of the public have already voted with their wallets. They’ve apparently voted for virtual keyboards on touchscreens because they perceive that there are more advantages to this form factor. Not all the news is terrible, though. There are apparently many pushes to make phones that satisfy people still in this niche, but they continue to be a dying breed. I doubt that they’ll go away anytime soon, but for most people, the pitfalls of having a clickety-click keyboard outweigh the benefits.

Are you a fan of tactile keyboards? Do you think there are advantages we’ve missed? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

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