There’s something unpleasant about typing on a touchscreen. The thud of fingers on a screen lacks the pleasing clack-clack-clack of a real keyboard. It’s OK, you can hand me a Luddite loyalty card now, but digital touchscreen keyboards, whether tablet or smartphone, still haven’t convinced me that they do the job any more than adequately.
I would go as far as to say that I like typing on a real keyboard. It's therapeutic, in the same way some people drum the edges of tablet with a pair of biros. I am good at it. It’s a skill that I am proud to have developed. I can clatter away sentences without looking at the keyboard, at speed, my fingers instinctively finding the right keys, with whole words just appearing on the screen like magic.
I am surely not alone in being a high-speed typist who enjoys having the skill. By the nature of this being a tech blog there’s a good chance you’re just as good as me, likely even better. We could be on the verge of extinction though, us proficient typists. Advancing technologies and changing user habits could be spelling the end for the keyboard and the art of typing. It looks as though the beautiful clack-clack-clack will within a decade, perhaps sooner, become an outmoded skill. I for one will miss it.
My typing training ground came in the form of online chatrooms. Around a decade ago, the big social networks of today were nowhere to be seen (well, MySpace was around but the less said about that the better) and it was a booming time for these virtual arenas of discussion, many of which were under the umbrella of larger services like MSN and Yahoo. My experiences were split between using wider communal chatrooms like Harry Potter UK, the biggest in MSN’s stable, and MSN Messenger, which was more for keeping in touch with people I knew from school and other friend groups.
It was a world where no one was tapping touchscreens but instead relying on the ol’ faithful keyboard. In a chatroom quick typing was an essential tool. Participating in an arena that held dozens, perhaps hundreds of participants, slow typing would make you fall far behind the pack. You could have honed the perfect reply to someone else’s message but if you didn’t hit enter quickly enough your reply could land in a foreign field of newer, possibly funnier, possibly different-topic replies. You wanted to be the first to a funny line. The gunslinger whose weapon was a keyboard. It was type quick or GTFO, basically.
Image credit: BBC
The move away from chatrooms coincided with the start of the social network revolution. Online chatrooms under MSN were shut down in the early Noughties, to much outcry, and later MSN Messenger was rolled into Windows Live Messenger. It was a sea-change in online social habits, which would eventually come to replace intensive typing with intensive swiping, prodding and ‘Liking’.
In the modern landscape, smartphones are many people’s main computers. Tweets and statuses their usual output, carefully crafted slices of narcissism, messages that don’t require a real grounding in as quick a set of typing skills as the chatrooms of old, due to the slower back and forth.
People don’t know how easy they have it. Youngsters growing up today, tablet-wielding toddlers, might never have to use a real keyboard on a computer, or at least have to really learn the art of typing at any speed. With video conferencing chipping away at the number of emails we send, and Snapchat and Instagram ever eroding the text-based updates of the Facebook and Twitter generations (that they can now be considered the “old” platforms is terrifying), you could even argue that written communications of every kind, touchscreen-typed or otherwise, will fade into obscurity in favour of visual image and video-based systems.
And that lends itself to a strange thought: it’s quite likely that online chatrooms created a kind of super-quick, self-taught mutant-typist, people like me, who can type more proficiently than the ‘hunt and peck’ one-finger jabbing style of older generations, but who will also likely be better at typing than the generations to come, who will have a whole host of other tools at their disposal, like the ones we’re about to look at.
I am not alone when it comes to disliking the practice of touchscreen typing: the so-called ‘input gap’, a term coined by a Glaswegian tech firm, refers to gulf between a tablet user’s ability to type on a standard keyboard – quickly and accurately – and the actual outcome of typing intensively on a tablet: clumsy and inaccurate. The size of keyboard, non-responsive keystrokes, lag, having to flick between two different keyboards and multi-function keys for punctuation symbols – all of it is a recipe for failed fumbling-finger frustration.
In mind of that fact, a whole market in peripherals for touchscreen devices has exploded in the last few years in an attempt to ameliorate the input gap, such as Bluetooth keyboards for tablets, but these provide an old-school solution to a new problem. Like tacking a horse onto a hoverboard to make it go, because the technology to power it isn’t here yet. Other technologies are acting as nails in the coffin for keyboards and the art of physical typing.
Take SwiftKey for instance, the popular predictive keyboard app that lets users swipe their finger across the characters before it works out what was intended to be typed. Once SwiftKey ‘learns’ what words you use frequently, it becomes an advanced tool that takes fingers away from having to tap individual keys.
Voice-recognition, once a ropey and almost laughably bad technology, has advanced to become a pretty powerful tool that, while still not infallible, hints towards just how good voice recognition will become. Siri, Cortana and Google Now – the big names in the voice-recognition game – can interpret reams of text, even punctuation, to a rather high accuracy. Once this becomes a perfected tool, as adept at reading posh plummy tones as it is Geordie swagger, it will become hard for keyboard lovers like me to defend typing out every single letter of a message or piece of text. I still will though.
Auto correction and predictive text have my backing for helping a cultural move away from ‘txt spk’, which is a vile bastardisation of the English language, but have created a breed of lazy typists who might as well never have to type out a full word again.
These technologies, and others like them, and others that will surely be developed in the following years could have QWERTY appreciators like me quaking in my keyboard-appreciating boots. For now, they are not good enough, at least in my personal experiences, to pose a threat for my beloved input device: SwiftKey is clumsy and hits the right word as many times as it misses; voice recognition throws up all sorts of ridiculous suggestions for words, almost always requiring a painstaking partial re-type; autocorrection often has me steaming with annoyance when it is convinced it knows what I want to say better than I do myself.
As the march of progression inevitably does continue these technologies’ progress towards infallibility, I will swipe at them violently with my keyboard, keeping them at bay as a literal keyboard warrior, smashing components and chips all over the place in defiance of modernity.
Hmm. OK. I probably won’t. But when the day comes that QWERTY is no longer my buddy, and I am talking, thinking or flagglewhacking my words onto a screen (just you wait, the Flagglewhacker is going to be big) I will still keep a fond place in my heart for the physicality of a mechanical keyboard, and the deft skill of typing quickly without looking down at the keys.
Does it matter that keyboards and typing might die out relatively soon? Probably not. Only for weird tech-lovers like me, I suppose. People will take up whatever the newest and best technology is, and one day QWERTY keyboards will sit in junk shops as curiosities. Or perhaps QWERTY really is king, and the speed at which something can be typed will never be trumped by voice recognition or fancy swipey/invisible/laser keyboards. The latter is unlikely, but for as long as it is possible, you will find me happily clack-clack-clacking away at my keyboard.