Keyboards: Touch the future

The keyboard has long been our best friend, but in an age of tablets and natural user interfaces, such as the touch screen – how long will they last as we have known them?

The famous input device was first conceptualized during the late 19th century. When a need to send financial stock data over telephone lines arouse, the early keyboard prototypes were improved upon and the teletype was invented. Teletype machines were able to send lines of text from a transmitting station to a stock ticker machine where the data was then printed out onto ticker tape.

As we move forward into the 20th century, typewriters became more common and the keyboard layout that rules the western world, QWERTY, was born. Back then, hitting the common keys too fast in succession actually jammed the entire machine! The QWERTY keyboard layout merged in order to combat this problem and prevent mechanical malfunctions by distributing keys according to their use frequency. Of course other keyboard exist as well (including QWERTZ and DVORAK), but QWERTY remains the most popular. If you ever wondered how the keyboard layouts got their names, simply look at the first six letter keys on your keyboard right now.

Today, many of us type away on our Ultrabooks and their “dome switch” keyboards. Pushing down a laptop key forces a dome shaped membrane to complete an underlying circuit and thus signal the computer that a key has been pressed. Many typists (read, “geeks”) enjoy using mechanical-switch or buckling-spring keyboards that produce an audible click when depressed; this confirmation of a key press is considered beneficial. Although the buckling-spring keyboard was abandoned by direct IBM manufacturing in 1993, a retro through-back can still be enjoyed thanks to Unicomp (the current manufacturer); its mechanical-switch keyboard brother can also still be found breathing and if you want to pick one up, I recommend the Razer Blackwidow.

As technology moved forward into the Pocket-PC and PDA era, multiple alternative forms of data entry were brought to light. Palm introduced Graffiti, a method of entering text by scribbling character symbols onto a resistive touch pad. Not all devices had to re-invent the keyboard though, Palm simply miniaturized it for their Treo devices – this, is where Apple thought it was time to revolutionize the way we input data into our mobile companions.

In 2007, Apple introduced their first generation iPhone; not necessarily the first device with a touchscreen keyboard, but the first one to perfect it. This moment was a pivoting point for technology and most smartphones as we know them today, rely solely on a touchscreen interface. The virtual keyboard exploded in popularity, and physical keyboards got their first taste of the future.

Now, tablets are popular and one of the best ways to get work done on the go. If you head to your favorite computer retailer or visit your local Microsoft Store, Ultrabooks that turn into tablet and tablets that turn into Ultrabooks are scattered as far as the eye can see. There are tablets with snap on keyboards, tablets with touch keyboards, and tablets with only virtual keyboards. As we move forward into a touch based world where natural user interaction is at the helm, our old keyboard friends could have a hard time fitting in.

Carrying a Samsung Windows tablet might be nice, but who wants to have to remember bringing along their keyboard? In retrospect, carrying a Lenovo YOGA around might be nice, but who wants to always have the bulk of a keyboard strapped onto the back? In my opinion, Microsoft hit the ball furthest with their Touch and Type Covers, but we still aren’t there yet. The Touch Cover can be difficult to type on for some and the slightly more physical, Type Cover, can feel cramped to others.

So, where does this leave us? Will physical keyboards that depress always be present – strapped onto the back of our Ultrabooks or carried around in our bags like an accessory? Or, will we have to adapt and learn to use our new Touch Cover and virtual keyboard friends?

This entire article was typed on my Microsoft Surface RT’s Touch Cover and I have to say that after having the unit for a week and practicing everyday – I just might be able to abandon my laptop’s keyboard. I also love how easy it is to clean the keyboard with a damp sponge and towel. There is something magical about the Surface Touch Cover; it's there when I need it, but hidden and out of sight (without adding much weight or thickness) when I don’t need it. The keyboard does have some negatives though, such as the fact that I can’t type on the couch or in my bed very well, but then again – chance of physical injury from typing is reduced significantly.

What do you think about the future of typing – will the keyboard as we know it live on or is the future full of Touch Covers and virtual keyboards?


Reader comments

Keyboards: Touch the future


I completely disagree I always come back keep to myself keyboard because I find it Horan dis to try to type on my tablet
if you need something with voice dictation this message was recorded using this message was dictated using Google's voice dictation and didn't come out perfectly text you can see with it misrepresenting some of the words
/end voice dictation 
Has you can see, that technology isn't that the level where we can replace keyboard yet. 

I agree, I much prefer a physical keyboard to touch screen for anything more than a few sentences.

I think the future will be about connecting electrodes directly into the brain so we can control things like cars, TV's, or input data. Today we already have disabled people who communicate by simply thinking what to display on the screen.. So, in the future our computers are going to interface directly with our minds. The weird thing is that if the information can go both ways we will not only not need keyboards in the future, but we won't need screens either.. Cool!

Using our brain to do stuff would be awesome, but I wouldn't trust the information going into my brain. A virus in your brain isn't funny :D
but it's usefull for sneaky things in public ;)

Yep, I love my touch cover, but its still a comprimise for portability. Its a great compromise because its so thin and still works great, but I dont see touch keyboards moving beyond mobile devices where compromises are made for portability.

Push these things to their limits! I know how the adage goes, if it ain't broke don't fix it...but really? Some of the greatest stuff would never have happened if our society was complacent, so I for one am happy for the great things going on with peripherals. Great article guys... ;)

So do I . had the touch and type series from HTC since 2004. The touchscreen keyboard is not just more difficult to write. it also takes half the display on my 920 which makes it really difficult to actually see what i wrote and it takes soooo much longer for it. i even need to look at the screen all the time . Go nokia - you know how to do it. get microsoft to make WP able to landscape !

<p>I have Nokia N900 and the keypad is the only thing I&#39;ll try miss when I start using my new Lumia 920 this thursday, have been waiting to get it since Nov 7.

No it wasn't. I've wondered about the future of the classic keyboard many times myself, and I'm glad to see someone else out the thought out there.

And by the way, I don't think the keyboard is gonna die anytime soon. Even with Windows Phone's predictive text, touch screens can't hope to compare to the keyboard's speed.

I'm oviously alone in thinking that this conversation is as insightful as wondering whether boots or sneakers are going to replace flip flops!

Not as much of a waste as replying only to ridicule rather than to add anything of substance. Did you even notice the irony in your statement before you hit the send button?

I still want to see those virtual keyboards that have little bubbles come up, a la Braille. Tried out the Touch Cover at my local MS Store in Bridgewater, NJ, and I say that's pretty interesting. If only it was made of Gorilla Glass too, because I'm prone of accidentally spilling and making messes onto my keyboard.

I notice on my touch cover that some of the keys don't want to register a stroke, and I have to hit it more than once to get the letter I need.
Hopefully MS fixes that problem for the next generation.

I'm certain it's malfunctioning. (My wife's magenta one works just fine.) The thing is, it's already my second one. The "skin" on my first one was peeling away, so MS already replaced it.
I'm hoping that they announce an updated cover come BUILD.

I feel you are on the money but we will still see keyboards as we know them for some time to come. I personally like the hybrids entering the market right now. I like having the hard-shell keyboard option and the ability to simply pull apart and have a tablet.

Let us not forget AZERTY keyboards in Europe.

As far as I'm concerned, I doubt physical keyboards will ever go away AND I pretty much doubt touch covers will replace them.
Touch covers are ok if you type just a little, say, a Windows Phone Central article.
But if you have to write way longer texts, the touch cover is a nightmare. That's why I find the type cover such a blessing.

And the thing is, even typewriters never went away. You won't find them on office buildings of course, but visit writers around the world and you'll find that many still prefer to use them.
(I still do. The typewriter is excellent for when you need to rest your eyes from the screens.)

Typerwriters are dead bro,
"Can you email me your article? - Impossibel, I did it with a typerwriter"
But a good argument on the type- vs. touch cover

Oddly enough, we have a typewriter in the office down the hall. An IBM with the heavy Selectric-style keys everyone but me raves about. (I never did see the appeal... Too loud for my taste. I'm not that deaf!) I hear it being used occasionally, but IDK what for.

Mechanical keyboards will always be the best IMO. Nothing beats the feel and build quailty. Not to mention they are easier on the hands as they don't require you to bottom out the keys for them to register.

Graffiti on Palm was great at the time -even Microsoft's first generation of Tablet PC would let you use that style of character input. I know it's obvious, that keyboards win mostly because we can get the complexities of the shape of our characters with a minimum of effort. Writing print characters takes longer than typing, cursive is challenging to be recognized electronically, and voice strips us if some of the privacy (and makes me awkward when forming thoughts). Windows Phone 8's predictive keyboard seems like one of the best advances by trying to move us above the character level when we're inputting and if it had a strong counterpart on a desktop OS, it might give us a purely screen keyboard that is faster than a physical keyboard.

I remember I was pretty fast writing on Grafitti on my Palm devices...
And it even helped me improve my caligraphy

I don't get why Windows 8 screwed the pooch and didn't use WP8's awesome keyboard. Yeah, it looks similar but the intellitype makes me so angry. It's always changing what I write to what it THINKS I'm trying to say. Then I go back and change it, only to have it "fixed" again. One time it was so bad I had to copy and paste the letters I wanted just so it wouldn't register as a typing problem.

WOW. Keep them coming! I really like reading insightful articles that try to challenge ones imagination, and the usual news article that we may also read from other websites. I say these kinds of articles should be posted as often as possible. :)

TYPED via N9's EXCELLENT on-screen stock keyboard.

You might want to correct the typos though... "som" instead of "some" and "wond" instead of "wonder". Perhaps ironic when talking about efficiency of keyboard input :P

I agree. Not every topic is a winner, but I do like to read more traditional blog-style posts along with the daily news articles. It's fun to read opinions (backed by substantive arguments, of course), speculation on upcoming tech or trends, and yes, even the occasional slightly-off-topic theme post. That stuff prompts excellent discussion.

I thoroughly enjoy my Type Cover and don't find it too small or restrictive in any way. And, unlike the Touch Cover, I can use it on my lap or in bed. I have abandoned my laptop completely at this point and use my Surface with Type Cover exclusively for work and, when traveling, I just close it and go. Unlike the iPad I used to usewith the Zagg case (another great design actually), I can get work done on my Surface. The iPad was great for surfing and watching video's, but I can do that and so much more with my Surface. 
Although, I do have to agree with miloadams, backlit keys would be nice. Even glow in the dark letters would help when working in a darker environment. But that's just me being greedy at this point.
Nice article, Michael. 

I have both the touch and type covers. Each one has its advantages however, I mostly find myself using the on-screen keyboard unless I really need the screen real-estate. The pen on the Pro is a wonderful mouse replacement though. I'd like to see more functionality built into that item.

Totally agree about the onscreen keyboard. I can almost type as fast on that as I can with my desktop keyboard. I hope they come out with a larger version of the surface to provide that extra real estate.

I too have the touch and type covers for my surface rt, but I've abandoned the touch cover. I find the type to be a really good general use keyboard while not really increasing the weight or portability by any significant difference to me. Also, the on screen keyboard works great, especially with the click sound enabled.

Unless touch screens or interfaces develop a tactile surfaces then they will never replace a keyboard. Touch typists rely on the tactile feedback hence the recent resurgence of mechanical keyboards. I've worked at companies who have a mixture of traditional, ergonomic and touch. The two most hated? Touch in first place and ergonimic  in second. However ergonomic with those who have CPS (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) preferred the 'winged' ergonomic design where the keyboard splits in half.
Touch screens also bring other ergonomic issues when used for a long time which you have to factor in for Health and Safety (at least in the UK and parts of Europe).

it mat not be enough but haptic feedback is cool, i turned it off once and it felt weird and awkward typing on my phone.

Yuck! I hate haptic feedback. I turn off all noise and feedback on my phone. Unfortunately, I can't turn it off for back/home/search - I even asked the manufacturer!

The touchscreen is the hallmark of a consumer device, i.e. one whose physical interaction with the user comprises simply the odd prod or swipe of the screen.  Anyone who has tried to do any actual work for any extended period of time using just a touchscreen as a means of input knows that it's a deeply frustrating experience.  A decent (i.e. not chiclet) keyboard and mouse are still of paramount importance to productivity, in my opinion, anyway.

Touch water resistent keyboard has so many advantages you can easily clean with one swipe and so on can't wait until they develop something like that :P

I think you meant 20th and 21st centuries. I'm pretty sure those in the 1800's weren't aware of such technology. :P

But no, there'll definitely be space for physical keyboards, at least, for a long while.

What? The typewriter itself was invented in the 1860's. There were earlier versions in the early 1800's. QWERTY came out in 1873. Our keyboards are simply electronic versions of the same thing...

The Keyboard and Mouse are not going anywhere. I prefer them over touch screens. A lot of people I talk to say the same thing. A touch screen is great for small things or quick emails but, for detailed things, a keyboard and mouse is needed.
I picked up a tablet with Windows 8 to see if I could live with a tablet to replace my desktop. I found if I need to type a long email or post, I would go to my desktop to do it because I can be more accurate with it. Also, gaming (not simple games) will not be any good with a touch screen.
When the younger crould starts entering the workforce (the "teens"now) coming from a touch only world, it might change up a little but, for me, a tablet is good for basic things but, if you want to get real work done, you need a keyboard and mouse.

I have to have a physical keyboard at some point. It just doesn't compare to virtual keyboards. For phones, maybe but not computers....for me anyways.

Touch has become, and will remain, just one of numerous input methods.
Each has its appropriate scenarios.
Physical keyboards will always be with us for those who require precision and speed. (Just try writing software on anything else.)
Voice was once "the future", dating back decades to systems like ViaVoice and Dragon. It still serves several key niche markets, but even on phones has limited use cases.
Handwriting recognition had its day in the sun, and is still supported on many of the latest tablets.

Most irritating part when writing on my PC, is that no auto suggest pops up... Way faster to write on my 920. My PC is only annoying :P

The physical (slider) keyboard on my HTC TouchPro 2 cell phone was amazing. It was so functional / useful that I used I to create so many documents that I wore the finish off some of the keys! The keyboard was backlit too! The keys had just the right travel, "click" feedback, and they were properly positioned offset from each (I dislike when the keys are stacked up aligned). I miss that keyboard.

Typing on my Lumia 822 screen and alternating between seeing the keyboard and seeing a full screen of text, just isn't as good.

Virtual keyboards?  You mean like that projected laser thing?  That;s been tried before and it failed, for a very good reason.  You cannot type for any length of time on it.  It's uncomfortable, no where near ergonomically correct, and if you're going to carry the projector you may as well carry a smallish keyboard.  The same goes for virtual keyboards on a tablet display.  I think the worst keyboard I have to deal with is that on my iPad Mini.  Even my Lumia 928 has a better keyboard.
The Surface is probably a lot better because there is feedback.  You can feel the keys - when you're on them, and when you've pressed them.  You can type withpout looking.  You can't on a virtual.  Virtuals have their place, but they aren't for doing much actual work - they are there if you need to do a little typing and can live with the error rate and poor ergonomics.
There is also voice input.  There are a lot of commercials from Dragon these days that show miraculous results from their software.  Maybe it's as good as it's pictured to be, but something tells me that since commercials all lie, and this is a commercial, well...  I for one can type faster than I talk, and my thoughts are better organized.  Give me a good keyboard.  The keyboard on the Lenovo Thinkpad is my gold standard at the moment.

Haha yeah, laser keyboards didn't last long. I know a few people who used those rubber roll-up keyboards though!

The type cover has really grown on me, felt cramped at first but now my prefered keyboard. Probably because I use it so much. Never could get used to the touch cover, cannot get used to touch based mice either.

Do you think we will actually be typing in a decade from now? I mean, do you think we will actually have to type out our words? It's interesting. I think typing will become less and less. Pretty soon we'll be able to produce text from thought. Physical keys will become a thing of the past and legacy devices will most likely have touch keyboards. Interesting!

Typing will be around in a decade, easily. I'll go on record to say that I don't think thought based text entry will be remotely prevalent in twenty years. It would be amazing, but I think there will be too many obstacles to it for general use. I wouldn't be surprised though if it came before flying cars.

It's about how easy that is to achieve. If you have to put on a space helmet to do it, and it costs $5000 then it won't be popular. I think throat-microphones and recognition of very quiet voices are a more likely option. That could be annoying though in an office full of whispering.

For students writing (typing) exhaustive theses, physical keyboards are very important. Touch keyboard is indeed very good (I love it on my Lumia 920), but for my academic work as well as long emails, I still prefer my PC :)

For lots of typing, nothing beats a good *mechanical* keyboard. Unicomp, Filco, WASD, Das Keyboard...the list goes on.

I think that it is important to note that we (everyone posting here) are acclimated to interfacing with our devices in a certain way due to a complex mix of legacy (QUERTY due to physical keys locking up.  Yes, my first type writer was a manual strike), cultural (the guy dictating his email in the office is seen as "that guy"), technology (BlackBerry keyboards made me a wiz at thumbing), etc.
The next generation could use other input methods, better ones, more productive.  My opinion is that all of us old farts will retard the advances in device interface due to our lack of plasticity to change.  Lord knows I don't want to learn a better keying then QWERT.

The touch cover is visually a really nice keyboard but I don't like the tactile feedback I receive from it

I have an X1Carbon too. 3444-54U to be specific. I love it. I also love my Surface RT & Pro. And of course my L920.

Keyboards will continue to exist for as long as computers will. Touchscreens and virtual touch keyboards probably go mainstream, but they won't make physical keyboards redundant anymore than laptops made desktops redundant. And offices around the world are proof that the desktop is still quite alive and thriving.

Actually, about the less injury part, I've been suffering from tendonitis for the last three years, so I know a lost about injuries caused by keyboards. I bought the new touch keyboard hoping it would help, but it turns out you have to put so much pressure on the keys to make them work that it actually made things worse. I wish there was a function to personalize the pressure needed to write with it. So I ended up buying the type keyboard, which requires much less pressure and is much better for me. I still kept the touch keyboard and use it one in a while to make sure I don't always do the same kinds of movements with my fingers.

Use a chair with arms to lean your elbows on, and don't use one of those wacky keyboard or mouse rests. I tried those once and my wrists hurt for days after!

Anyone that types as part of their day job still requires the physical keyboard. No way to vet the word per minute averages you can attain on a physical keyboard. Predictive text and auto correct cannot be leveraged effectively for long periods of writing. Now using one's voice as an effective means for input, this will minimize keyboard use across the board.

I disagree.
Spoken language is much sloppier than written/typed... English especially so.
Typed language already has difficulties with oxford commas, and those grammatical elements aren't even possible in spoken word.
Ever tried to write, debug and edit HTML, CSS, PHP, let alone C++ native code by SPEAKING your changes? Yeeaaahh, Not going to happen.

In the end, if the input device/method is TRULY going to minimize keyboard use "across the board" then it FIRST AND FOREMOST needs to be found as a natural replacement for those for whom the utilitarian devices are created to begin with; the SOFTWARE DEVELOPERS and ENGINEERS.

If developers (who design the hardware and write the software) can use the input method instead of their trusty keyboards and mice, THEN form can start working on making the function appealing.
But if the developers and engineers don't adopt it, then the input will be nothing but a fad or side-note.

Same goes for Mr. Archambault's "touch keyboards are the future".
No offense, but hardware doesn't bend to first meet the needs of writers and/and editors.
Nerds, geeks and dorks' engineering/development skills dictate and drive the tech world,
not the humanities majors who merely write about their success.

How about using "flexible screen" technology to create "bumps" on the screen when the virtual keyboard is displayed, so the user will feel the place of each letter and be able to press down on those bumps. And bumps should disappear when keyboard is not visible and the screen should return to be smooth as we know it.

I'm LOVING my Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro. Other than the miniscule 4GB non-upgradable RAM that is. Great form factor. The Lenovo Helix is my perfect device and I'll pick one up when they're availble for less crazy prices.
For me, a physical keyboard is way better than any touch keyboard. I still miss my physical keyboards on phones, but the only phones they make nowadays with physical keyboards are junk. I'd buy a portrait sliding Galaxy Note the instant one were availble if it were to ever be made.

I'm surprised how used I get to typing onscreen on my Thinkpad Tablet 2. I own the BT keyboard and admire Lenovo for making a perfect keyboard with all import keys fully sized, but I hardly ever take it with me on the go. The Article therefore was an interesting read. Moreover I don't take typewritten notes but rely on my scribbles in the cloud. Got a WP8 just for One Note's ability to display handwriting.

I just got a Surface Pro with both the Touch and Type covers. I like the Touch a lot and have more of a problem with the touchpads on both keyboards than the actual keys. On top of that, I've tried using the virtual keyboard (I like the split/thumb style) as much as possible just to see if I can get by without a physical keyboard, and I can do most of the things I need to throughout the day as an IT pro. But we'll see if that holds true when I get into some heavier work in the near future. I kinda think I may be able to get by without a physical keyboard and could use just a mouse. I look forward to not needing a physical keyboard and would consider an all-in-one of 18" or higher to explore this further...

Mechanical keyboards in the sense that most people percieve them today wil go away, and we are not far from that fully happening.
With mechanical 'screen' technology using various technologies from actual pins to shape changing membranes, the touch screens will soon be able to 'physically' replicate a 'real' keyboard.  This applicaiton of technology will extend far beyond just keyboards from new dynmaic interactive modalities for touchscreens to even assisting blind users to feel 'pictures'.
The PROBLEM with traditional keyboards today is that they have a singular function that is limited to the mechanical design when built.  This is why and where the real argument of discarding the keyboard we know will come from, even if the touch/screen keyboard we use in the future is used as a 'keyboard' 90% of the time.  The idea that it can be on the fly reconfigured and used for other things is the strength in the argument for giving up on mechanically designed keyboards.
No matter how much anyone loves their keyboard, if a touch screen technology that can 'shape change' to reproduce the feel of any mechanical keyboard, the argument for standalone keyboards will end.
In the technologies we have today, it is strange that the onscreen keyboard is not given more of a chance, along with the ability to handwrite on the screen as the Microsoft Windows tablet technologies allow us to do.  In tablet form, and the stylus using just handwriting augmented with touching the screen, a LOT of users do NOT miss a keyboard when doing medium level work, including writing letters/email messaging, etc.
Handwriting should be given more of a chance by people with Stylus enabled Windows 8 tablets, and with a bit of learning curve/practice, they, like Surface Tablet users of 10 years ago found, they can live without a physical keyboard more than what they realized.
The Windows 8 onscreen keyboard technologies are also better than what people realize. Users coming from Android tablets or iPads have a misconception that the Windows 8 keyboard is going to be a limited as the other offerings and sadly discount using them for any serious work.   With the Windows 8 onscreen keyboards in split and full modes can be highly effective even for touch typists and marginally even gamers. 
In my peronsal testing, I hit around 225wpm on a nice Microsoft split physical keyboard, and hold steady in the 150-200 range on traditional laptop keyboards.  With the Windows 8 onscreen keyboard, I can also maintain 150wpm, which is virtually as effective as my laptop keyboard.  The trick is learn how the keyboard works, DO NOT USE the non-touch screen on-screen keyboard that Microsoft provides, and DO NOT expect it to work or use it like a keyboard on an Android or iPad, as their designs are very much setup for single press typing (hunt and peck).   With the Windows 8 touch onscreen keyboard, it is designed for multitouch, and even its autocorrect and recognition is designed around how a touch typist uses a traditional keyboard.
The ability to resize the touch keyboard on the desktop is also important for gamers, use 'full screen windowed' or a Windowed mode for your game, and the w,a,s,d movement works just fine. (Make sure the click sound is off)
I do urge users to try the Stlyus and and handwriting and even give the onscreen keyboard in Windows 8 a shot even if they have the nice Surface cover/keyboards.  I guarantee most users will find them more productive than they assume and will have the advantage of being able to use handwriting and the onscreen keyboard more often and have to carry any type of keyboard with them less than they do now.  Especially sitting with the device on your lap catching up on some work or browsing the web, you won't miss the physical keyboard once you have given it a bit of practice.