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Type, Tap and Away: The Decline of Smartphone Keyboards

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The age of hardware keyboards is long over.

The four-row QWERTY-armed smartphones are gone; the territory of QWERTY lies in desolation; the software keyboards now reign supreme over user interface land. Hardware keyboards are still defiant in BlackBerry’s shrinking kingdom while manufacturers fit obsolete hardware onto horrible looking smartphones with keyboards to differentiate them from the all-touch flagship devices.

But let me tell you of this bygone age, the pre-iPhone days when hardware keyboards dominated the landscape, when all-touch smartphones were ridiculed and when Palm and BlackBerry were both leading the smartphone race.

Start of the End

Prior to the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, smartphones with hardware keyboards were the ultimate smartphones. Since laptops were still bulky boxes and tablet PCs were still confused monstrosities with very basic specs, the only options available for businessmen and power users were either Windows Mobile (WinMo) smartphones with their sliding keyboards, Palm Treos or BlackBerry devices.

You could do basically everything that involved productivity on the fly back then on those WinMo sliders or Treos. The only problem that those devices faced, especially WinMo smartphones, was stability. All Windows smartphones had a small hole with a reset button (accessible using the provided stylus) that would restart the phone every time you pushed it. It was there for a reason: WinMo devices lagged and stuttered a lot.

For BlackBerry and Palm, the problem was, well, they weren’t media devices. While Symbian smartphones with their simplistic user interface weren’t even close to providing the business functions of their WinMo counterparts, their multimedia side was top-notch. Videos that wouldn’t even load on a WinMo or BlackBerry were played seamlessly. Mobile Internet was better on the small screen of the Symbian-powered devices than the huge (for that time) touchscreens of the Windows group.

The arrival of the iPhone changed all of that.

While initially ridiculed for being underpowered and too expensive considering that it wasn’t marketed as a business device, the iPhone showed the world how a smartphone should handle both business and multimedia. For a while, the QWERTY companies laughed at the absurdity of an all-touch device because surely consumers would want to send long emails, right? How could consumers type quickly on all-touch screens? Surely no one would buy the Apple devices.

How wrong they were. IPhones were bought in droves. It seemed that Apple had successfully discovered the formula for a bestseller. Almost immediately, following reports of lines at all Apple stores all over the United States, the blindsided manufacturers started making their own iPhone challengers.

Losing Battle

QWERTY keyboards felt a decline only when the manufacturers began making iPhone-esque phones that were just large touchscreens melded with cartoony user interfaces. The perception that the iPhone was just a feature phone and thus deserved only feature phones as competitors only made the iPhone stand out more. The iPhone competition such as the ill-fated LG Prada, Samsung Tocco, and LG Cookie gained traction for a while but did not really present a real challenge to the iPhone or to its 3G successor.

Sure enough, the advent of Android in 2008 ushered in a new age of smartphones. Android put the nail on the coffin of Windows Mobile which gave birth to Windows Phone and Symbian which, unfortunately, was relegated to the dustbin of history by Nokia. Palm tried to stop the onslaught with WebOS in 2009 but it proved too little and too late. HP would eventually acquire Palm.

The hardware keyboards, though, at first weathered the storm quite well. Android smartphones with hardware keyboards such as the T-Mobile G1, Motorola Droid, and Samsung Epic 4G were all popular devices. However, as more and more devices with large screens with no hardware keyboards but slimmer profiles were launched by manufacturers, more and more users began to choose a large HD screen over a hardware keyboard.

BlackBerry and Nokia both attempted to stem the tide, introducing excellent smartphones with keyboards such as the Bold 9900 and the Nokia E7. The latest attempt by BlackBerry, the Q10 and the Q5, only fared slightly better due to the new operating system, BlackBerry 10 and the brand loyalty of the CrackBerry crowd. In Android Land, smartphones with the latest specs and hardware keyboards are nowhere to be found.

A New Hope: Add-on Keyboards

All is not lost, though.

There are add-on keyboards available for smartphone users who miss them. For example, Typo, made by Ryan Seacrest’s company, is currently available for iPhone users. It looks and feels like a BlackBerry keyboard, so much so that BlackBerry has filed patent infringement charges against the company.

Considering the cost of Typo ($100), you might need to sell your old smartphones to eCycle Best or online auction sites such as Amazon and eBay to afford it.

Keyboards might be fighting a losing battle. Indeed we might never see smartphones with keyboards in the future. Hardware keyboards are dead, killed by the iPhone and the HD screen.

Either you get over it or buy yourself a BlackBerry.