Why Computer Keyboards Are Dying
Lately I have been considering what a next-level computing experience looks like (an integrated hardware & software solution). I’ve been imagining the role of gestural mapping, holograms & 3d space, all of which I will likely discuss in more depth at some point. But before we get to the fancy stuff, there is one aspect of the “navigation” experience that is ripe for innovation - and that is the computer keyboard.
1. What’s wrong with the current keyboard, you ask?
a. Ergonomics. We as humans are spending increased time in front of a computer screen, for both leisure & work. Intense, lengthy keyboard typing episodes can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, among other problems like bad posture. Many alternative “more ergonomic” alternatives have been designed and manufactured, but because I don’t see them widely used by consumers, or bundled by bigger players, their impact is not significant enough.
b. Inefficiency: unused keys / key combinations. The Pareto Principle (aka the “80-20 rule”) states that, “for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes”. This logic holds true in the case of the keyboard - as most people do not use all the keys/key combinations available to them. 20% of the keys do 80% of the damage. A simpler keyboard leaves less room for confusion, opening up the door for more intuitive experiences.
c. Diverging consumer behaviors & use cases. Keyboards are really useful for some digital activities, and not as crucial for others. For certain activities, like programming, heavy word processing, etc, a keyboard is a must. However, consumer behavior is rapidly changing, and activities like game-playing, browsing, video watching, shopping & searching don’t require much typing at all. For these uses, a simple trackpad or touch screen, with optional typing capabilities suffices. Think tablets.
2. So, why hasn’t there been more widespread innovation around the keyboard?
a. There is such a strong precedent set by the QWERTY keyboard, an old tradition began by the birth of the typewriter in the 19th century. It is such a force of nature, that throughout history multiple attempts to do away with QWERTY have failed. I mean, who wants to relearn how to type? Making changes to the arrangements of keys is not expedient for consumers, and thus, not easily adopted. By default, this tradition stifles innovation.
b. People like options. Despite the fact that there are some key strokes / combinations that I (as a consumer) hardly ever use, it is comforting to know that I have the option to use them, should I ever need them.
c. Limited distribution opportunities. While there is a market for computer peripherals, most consumers want things to be nicely packaged for them, preferring bundled solutions (laptops & desktop packages). Big players are risk-averse, as introducing a radically different keyboard design into their bundled products could mean losing market share. A systemic resistance to change also makes it harder for smaller, more specialized computer peripheral players to gain a critical mass of users on new keyboard designs, thus perpetuating our problem.
3. How can we innovate?
While typing every letter gives us more control, it is also time and work intensive. Finding a way to make consumers do less work when navigating (or typing) is a way to produce a better solution. How can we guess what people are saying, and say it for them, reducing the work done by the consumer? Conceivably, this could be achieved by employing machine learning, and creating an integrated system that suggests to people what they are looking for, or completes unfinished or basic search queries. (think Siri)
Ideas for innovation:
- reduce unnecessary key strokes
- make keyboards more ergonomic (separation of keys, reoriented)
- virtual keys, rather than physical (think touch screen)
- can feet also be used? (like a piano foot pedal)
- what role will gestures play in this? (both 2d and 3d space)
- How do we get people to adopt a new paradigm?
- The physical & audible feedback of the keyboard is rewarding
- Who will be the first mover?
********** FINAL NOTE **********
While the title of my essay may be “alarmist”, I AM NOT implying that computer keyboards will completely disappear. Rather, I see a bifurcation of the computer keyboard, separated by the functional roles it plays to different users. (this is essentially a continuation of the touch screen trend that has proliferated along with smartphones and tablets)
If we can combine a simplistic interface with other technologies that allow consumers to do more with less work, I believe a sophisticated and innovative consumer keyboard is both possible and inevitable.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!