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Maybe the Mac is a typewriter after all

Jason Snell | May 28, 2015
Some of my colleagues still type on keyboards designed by Apple in the 1980s. What I'm saying is, some people really care about keyboards. But whether or not you have opinions about keyboards, they're important tools to help us get written language into our digital devices.

Some of my colleagues still type on keyboards designed by Apple in the 1980s. What I'm saying is, some people really care about keyboards. But whether or not you have opinions about keyboards, they're important tools to help us get written language into our digital devices.

On Tuesday AppleInsider reported on an Apple patent for a multitouch keyboard that would, if implemented, allow the company to remove the trackpad entirelybecause the keyboard would itself become a trackpad, with key caps as touch-sensitive surfaces. It's a pretty wacky idea, and plenty of Apple's patents never end up in real products. Companies patent lots of crazy things.

The report got me thinking: With all of the recent complaining about the MacBook keyboard, where is Apple going with text input in the future?

With the MacBook, Apple created the thinnest traditional keyboard it could make in order to minimize the thickness of the overall device. It tried to offset the reduction in key travel with increased clickiness and wider, more stable key caps. Some people love that keyboard, others just don't see what the big deal is, and some (including your faithful correspondent) don't like it.

It's funny that there's so much conversation about the MacBook's keyboard, considering how little we talk about keyboards on iOS devices. iOS supports external keyboards, sure, and of course there are the software keyboards Apple provides for the iPhone and iPad. (iOS 8 added support for third-party keyboards, though I rarely talk to anyone who actually uses one and loves it.)

In some ways, I feel like Apple's strategy when it comes to text input on iOS devicesand this is certainly magnified on the Apple Watchis that keyboards are necessary but not particularly exciting. The Apple Watch, which doesn't have room for a keyboard, lets you send messages via speech-to-text, or via recorded audio file. Speech-to-text keeps getting better throughout iOS. The future is voice.

I'm not saying Apple's ditching keyboards. There are plenty of times when people are simply not in a position to talk into their phonesa keyboard is a simple, quiet way to input text. But put yourself in Apple's shoes and imagine where you want to take your text-input technology over the next 15 years. Is anyone at Apple really imagining how the company is going to evolve the keyboard between now and 2030?

My guess is that Apple views the keyboard as a solved problem. And while keyboards can be improved, they're always going to be keyboards.

As much as I love car and truck metaphors, and as loyal as I am to my Mac, it's hard not to think of the Mac (and yes, the personal computer category as a whole) as one big pile of old tech, the typewriter of modern digital devices. It operates on an older metaphor, saddled with cursors and keyboards and other accoutrements that were once required but are now optional.

 

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