Home > Mac News > The iPhone Keyboard

The iPhone Keyboard

June 9th, 2007

One of the chief criticisms that has been going around about the iPhone is the usability of the keyboard. One recent such rant was made by John Dvorak, who claimed that an unnamed “industry insider” says that the keyboard is a “disaster,” and that “people are going to return the phone in droves,” as many as 20% of buyers. But then, Dvorak is a self-proclaimed Apple troll, the Mac world’s Ann Coulter. Still, others have express concern over how hard it might be to use the keyboard. A few images of the keyboard below, and a demo of how it is used from Apple’s web site.



The interface is pretty simple: you have a virtual keyboard on the screen which you can use with one or two fingers. As your finger moves over the keyboard, the selected key grows a tab that appears above your finger, so that the view of the letter is not occluded by your finger. (Apple might want to think about adding transparency to the pop-up so that the letters behind it are not constantly masked, causing trouble for us hunt-and-peck types.) There is a shift key and a numbers-symbols key to allow for non-lowercase letters; the numbers-symbol button replaces the regular keyboard with all ten digits on top and thirteen common punctuation marks and symbols below.


Presumably, hitting the shift key here will allow access to other symbols, but I can’t find a demo which shows that.

The iPhone keypad also has error correction for hasty mistyping (how well it works stands to be seen), and an auto-capitalization feature when you enter a new text field or hit the “return” button. The error-correction feature might also double as an auto-complete, but I’m not sure on that one.

So: with all of that established, how hard will the keyboard be to use? Of course, it’s almost impossible to tell until you get your hands on one and try, and then there’s the fact that everyone is different and so people will disagree to a certain extent. But from what I can see, I have the feeling that, while it might take a little getting used to, it should be a good system. I was put off originally by the pop-up tab for the key about to be pressed, but upon reflection I think it’s a positive; although it would obscure the two keys above the key to be pressed, it serves to un-obscure the key to be pressed and as such acts as a visual confirmation that you’ve got the right key. The auto-correct would seem to handle whatever errors are made anyway. I could imagine becoming pretty adept at it, typing not as fast as a standard keyboard, but still very quickly.

But here’s the real test: how does it compare with other real-world options? When you compare this to the standard numeric-keypad system, there’s simply no contest. For example, using the number keypad, the “7” key is “PQRS,” with lowercase and uppercase either rotating (p-q-r-s-P-Q-R-S) or using a shift key; in such a case, typing a capital “S” requires either five or eight keystrokes–which is why I never enter text into my cell phone unless I am absolutely forced to. I know that one could get adept at it, but it still requires a lot of extra effort even if you do. Most cell phones that I have seen have this keypad, and I cannot imagine anyone actually preferring it over the iPhone’s keypad, unless they had some sort of unusual and highly annoying difficulty with the iPhone.

An additional problem with the alpha-numeric keypads is that one sometimes must manually advance the cursor. For example, if you want to type the word “cab,” all the letters are on the same key. That means that you have to punch three (or six) times to get the “C,” and then you must press the cursor-advance key to get the “A” because pressing the same key again would just be considered an attempt to repair the original entry.

Then there are the alternatives to the standard keypad, which offer more buttons while still keeping with the original size constraints of the normal cell phone. Take these two for example:


The one on the left (these links are to web pages where I got the images from) is an intermediate solution, reducing the number of letters per key to two instead of three, and adding the shift key. This helps a bit, but still is not as good as the iPhone. While it reduces the number of steps from the normal keypad, it does not do it as well as the iPhone does as there are still more strokes. Also, the phone has compromised a bit in making the keys a bit smaller and the phone a bit wider. I can’t see this as a preferable system, again unless a user has some unusual problem with the touch screen. This keypad also still suffers from the same-key-different-letter problem, requiring an advance-the-cursor keystroke sometimes.

The one on the right adds an almost piano-like white-and-black-keys solution, in alphabetical order. This could be better or worse than the standard keypad, depending. The buttons are tiny, and are laid out in a nonstandard fashion; though alphabetical, it is something a person would have to get used to–which means that it is no better than the iPhone in that respect. I really can’t see this as outclassing the iPhone, either.

Then we get the Blackberry solution:


I think this is what people are thinking about when they complain about the iPhone’s keypad. Instead of comparing the iPhone to most cell phones, they instead compare its keyboard to the best keyboard on the market, while ignoring other considerations. The Blackberry keyboard would seem to beat out the iPhone’s, again except for unusual situations or personal preference. The problem is that the Blackberry has other faults, chiefly the size and appearance, something a full comparison would have to take into consideration. Comparing the form factor between the two alone would, for most people, leave the iPhone the clear winner. So, if we take all aspects–including browsing abilities, music playing, photo taking and viewing, email and texting, syncing with a computer, menu interface–everything–into account, does the Blackberry still win? Again, it comes down to personal preference.

There are also slide-out keyboards, and maybe some people prefer them–but they would not only make the phone thicker and cause other design problems, but they would be an additional moving part, something extra that could get broken more easily.

However, the iPhone could possibly cancel out slide-out keyboards’ and the Blackberry’s chief advantage–the keypad–with a simple software fix: use its ability to change from portrait to landscape via motion sensor, and apply it to the keyboard, as this Photoshopper demonstrates:


Or maybe not–maybe some people prefer the tactile response of buttons. Maybe the landscape margins on the iPhone would be considered too much of an obstruction. But it could work.

Additionally, the iPhone, as a touch-screen phone, has the unique advantage of being software-reconfigurable. What if you, like my brother, is a Dvorak-keyboard (not that Dvorak) user? An iPhone could, potentially, make that switch easily, as it uses the Mac OS which can make that change as well, or it could change the keyboard language (e.g., Greek, Russian, etc.).

All in all, I think the pre-release negativity about the iPhone’s text keypad is premature and probably misplaced. Maybe it’s just the easiest thing for Apple critics to kvetch about, one of the only known things aside from the price that the device could be criticized about, ergo the attention to it.

We’ll see in a few week’s time anyway, won’t we?

Categories: Mac News Tags: by
  1. June 9th, 2007 at 13:00 | #1

    People are likely to criticize the iPhone more than a Blackberry or other model cell phones because of the incredibly inflated price tag. With it being so expensive, one would expect it to be a great combination phone and PDA and to out-pace all the alternatives by a good margin.

    If the iPhone can’t manage this then it should be more reasonably priced and competitive. I think that Apple, as is often the case, is more concerned with style over function and the on-screen keypad is meant to keep the form factor appealing with a nominal nod to function. It’s the same sort of thinking that produced the Apple mouse you tried so hard to love and failed.

  2. Luis
    June 9th, 2007 at 16:08 | #2

    About the price tag, one would hope that rumors of phone-company subsidization are true. Assuming the price tag stays high, however, one has to remember that the iPhone is far more than just a cell phone–it’s got web, email, photo, and iPod capability added in. If people are looking for a bare-bones cheap cell phone, this won’t be their phone. But if someone is looking for a cell phone and an iPod and a PDA–as you mentioned–this could even wind up saving them money. But people are acting as if the money that goes into an iPhone is hinging on the keyboard, when in fact it goes to pay for a phone/PDA/iPod/video player etc.

    As for form over function, much can be said about form being almost as important–combining several machines into one and having that be both easy to carry and pleasing. The form issue for the iPhone is much more relevant than for the Apple mouse, as the mouse is just sitting next to your computer and appearance isn’t nearly as critical. How often do you really look at your mouse? For a cell phone/PDA/iPod with video, form plays a much bigger role.

    As for function, we’ll have to see what sacrifices will have to be made to adapt to Apple’s keypad. I would think that it suffices to say that other more expensive and less functional phones have been released with just the standard numeric input but did not draw as much heat for it, even when taking into account the different levels of publicity. And certainly not this far ahead of people being able to judge it at all accurately.

  3. Andy
    June 9th, 2007 at 19:07 | #3

    Ive always liked Blackbery and more so one of those phones that expands to show a wide keypad whose model I cant quite remember. Key pads are nice when compared to regular phone buttons but I really like the touch screen on iPhone that zooms up. In this case its extremely important to have no lag time while adding a good UI feel to it. I trust Apple will take care of that and I’m sure its worth paying a premium for if it demands that.

    Dont think Im getting one tho. Im kinda anti mobile computing myself… for obvious health reasons. If I were to carry one it has to have just enough processing power thats needed to carry out a phone call.

  4. June 9th, 2007 at 22:15 | #4

    I look at my mouse all the time because I have two of them which are exactly the same and have to look for a sticker on one to be sure I’m using the right one. :-p However, I’m not incredibly hung up on how my devices look regardless.

    I’m not sure that the iPhone is going to incorporate enough functionality to be worth $600. I guess if you’re so keen on rolling everything into one device, it may be worth it but I’m thinking that anything which does a little of everything isn’t going to be great at any one thing and most people who value the non-phone functions are going to have to buy better devices regardless. For instance, a 2 megapixel camera is crappier than my low end Nikon digital camera (which cost ~$125). People aren’t likely to avoid a purchase as a result of added functionality on the iPhone unless they don’t need those functions anyway.

    I think what we’re going to see is that sales will mainly be boosted by the geek factor and the cool factor and the average consumer is going to stick with cheaper alternatives. Mainly, Apple can count on the technologically-obsessed and status conscious for early sales success. Once the people who have to have the latest and greatest to flash around to their friends have blown their cash on the early models, Apple will have to drop the price to sustain sales.

  5. ykw
    June 10th, 2007 at 00:27 | #5

    I think the iPhone is going to have terrible battery life.

  6. Kevin D
    June 10th, 2007 at 03:51 | #6

    At work, we’ve been using a 3″ touchscreen Windows Mobile industrial device. There’s a very nice landscape screen keyboard available for WM, with predictive text. Even with the landscape, it’s still a pain to use. So I don’t think you’ll ever be able to say that soft keyboards are as good as hard keyboards.

    The fact that using fingers obscures what you’re touching, is one of the biggest items against touchscreen interfaces. It’s a good idea on the iPhone keyboard that it moves the touched key image where you can see it.

    Still, I think that someone could make money selling an “iPhone stylus” finger ring, or similar item.

    Also on the touch topic, I was amused to read the iPhone sales training manual section on viewing photos, where it talks about how natural and easy it is to swipe left or right to move between pictures as compared to buttons.

    While it might be natural and cool looking, it’s got two things against it. First, your finger obscures the pics. Second, this action gets hugely tiring after a while. Can you imagine swiping the display on the back of your digital camera to view the hundreds of photos on it? No way. Using buttons is a lot easier and quicker.

    Having used touch screens (I’m on a laptop with one now) for a couple of decades, I can say they’re fun but ultimately buttons make more sense in a lot of situations.

  7. K. Engels
    June 10th, 2007 at 06:14 | #7

    But then, Dvorak is a self-proclaimed Apple troll, the Mac world’s Ann Coulter.

    That is an insult to Ann Coulter… She is a paragon of truth and accuracy when compared to Dvorak.

  8. MusesuM
    June 18th, 2007 at 05:08 | #8

    Thanks for posting the iPhone punctuation pic. Was searching all over for that. Why? I’m creating a simple language for self expression via the iPhone. So, knowing how to keep the gesture cost down is important.

    BTW, I have a Motorola Q. It has a real keyboard. The interaction design is really funny! It has a huge nipple in the middle that is notorious for redialing people when you least expect it. Too bad it doesn’t work when you *most* expect it … like when you’re entering a phone number and want to place the call … but, noooooo … you’re supposed to press *hard* on the little green marked membrane off to one side.

    I don’t think anyone on the Moto-Q team has ever heard of Fitt’s Law. Plenty of people at Apple know. As someone who has made his living on mostly Windows code here’s how I would parse out the Microsoft/Apple Philosophies:

    Microsoft: Features first – choose what’s best
    Apple: Benefits first – less is more efficient

    My Moto-Q has plenty of features. But, I keep stumbling over them. Last year, I would joke that “I’m not smart enough for my smart phone”. This year’s joke starts out with: “I been thinking about using this phone’s Frisbee feature …”

Comments are closed.