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Why Are We Using 19th Century Keyboards?

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“Dear Computing Industry, why am I still using a keyboard from 1878?”

This tweeted my friend Kim Sherrell. It’s not for want of trying. I can’t think of any other device that has seen so many attempts at creative innovation. And I don’t just mean simple things like varying the shape of the keyboard or the way the keys are arranged. People have tried all sorts of “chording” and one-handed keyboards, virtual keyboards projected onto desks, and even a Keybowl keyless keyboard that lets you type without moving your fingers.


Keyboards attract lone inventors with imaginative ideas because success could change the world: there are billions of keyboards and many people would like a better way to enter text. There are also lots of commercial opportunities beyond the home and office. Kong Fanwen, for example, imagined a flat glass No-Key keyboard without any physical keys but using motion capture instead. It’s the sort of idea that might work on a factory floor or in hospitals. Conventional keyboards collect dust, dirt and germs and are hard to clean: it would be useful if you could rinse your keyboard under a tap or sterilise it.

Developments in mobile phones and tablet computers also keep driving new waves of innovation, because these devices are simply too small for conventional keyboards. If you used a Palm personal organiser, you’ll remember the Graffiti text entry system. If you used what Microsoft called an Ultra Mobile PC (codenamed Origami), you’ll remember the on-screen thumb keyboard.


Well, the latest and possibly greatest development is Swype, which first appeared on Windows Mobile phones and is now on many others including the Droid X and the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Instead of pressing keys, you just swipe one finger over your touch-screen phone keyboard. With a little practice, you might Swype faster than you can type: someone setting the Guinness World Record for sending the fastest text message managed sixty words per minute.

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