Friday, February 04, 2011


Go to hell, keyboards!

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, ACER introduced a concept for a new laptop called the ICONIA.  The predominant feature was that it had no keyboard.

ACER's ICONIA notebook, with twin touchscreens.

While it's an idea that has been floating around for a while, this is the first production model I'm aware of.  On it's own, it's only sort of interesting.  The demoed U.I. for the "keyboard" half is not particularly well designed or implemented.  No.  The really interesting aspect of this was the reaction to the product.  Tech site articles and their comments were rife with with snarky commentary.  The basic gist of which was that a "real" computer has to have a hardware keyboard.

Wait.... what?!

Here we are, in the year 2011, and regardless of a computer's function, or the work that the user is doing on it- the primary method of input is still a holdover from the 1870's, when the first mass-production typewriters went into service.  A devices who's letter arrangement was set up to stop the hardware keys from jamming against one another.  Really?

Our proud past... and glorious future?!

How not far have we come?

The carryover of the interface from from the typewriter to the computer is certainly an understandable one.  I'm not so young as to forget the days with my VIC 20.  Command line input was the mainstay through most of the 80's and for that you definitely needed a keyboard; until the mapped interface  and computer mouse was developed by Xerox PARC, introduced on the Macintosh, and popularized by Microsoft with it's release of Windows in the early 90's.

And after 20+ years of development, these early tools have evolved into today's modern... mouse and keyboard.


Now, let me be frank.  I know a lot of writers who make their living banging away at the keys every day, and my intention isn't to demean or deride what they do.  And typing is certainly part of just about everyone's day.  But with how far we've come in just about every other aspect of computing how does this make any sense:


WRITER - Keyboard & Mouse
ACCOUNTANT - Keyboard & Mouse
ENGINEER - Keyboard & Mouse
PAINTER - Keyboard & Mouse
MUSICIAN - Keyboard & Mouse
VIDEO EDITING - Keyboard & Mouse
ARCHITECT - Keyboard & Mouse
ANIMATOR - Keyboard & Mouse

Do we see a pattern here?  Even in the cases where add-on inputs are available, such as midi keyboards for musicians, or tablets for artists, they are still subservient to the mouse as a pointer device... and a keyboard.  The keyboard which was designed for ONE task, and has been forced into servitude for ALL possible ends, through a never-ending series of keyboard shortcuts.

As someone who's had to learn several different video editing platforms in my career, it's what creative people fear the most- change.  It's why editors are so faithful to the programs they use.  Because if they switch, it means having to spend months learning how to do what you already know how to do but can't do anymore cause all the goddamn buttons have changed!

The keyboard creates a bizarre layer of abstraction between the user and any non-text input tasks that's entirely unnecessary.  Could there be a new paradigm where the keyboard is only an optional facet to an interface that's optimized for any and every task-- easier and more intuitively?

In PART 2, I'll look at what alternative inputs exist today, and technologically soothsay about how they might impact the future of everyday computing.

Except for writers, they'll hate it.