PERHAPS SCOTTY, the beloved engineer of the starship Enterprise NCC-1701 (and NCC-1701-A for you Trekkies out there), put it best in 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. After failing multiple times to give voice commands to a 1985-era PC and being told by a confused Dr. Nichols to just use the keyboard instead, a flustered Scotty replied, “A keyboard … How quaint.”
Apparently, 23rd century computer users look upon today’s plastic slab of keys with the same disdain as users from the 21st century. And it’s not like plenty of people aren’t trying to rid the Earth of the physical keyboard. For years there has been significant focus on non-keyboard interaction experiences, like VR and AR, as well as a massive push in hardware categories like tablets and smartphones that shift input to voice and virtual keys. Even virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa eschew the physical keyboard for natural human interaction.
Despite all of this, however, the keyboard continues to be a staple among peripherals in the modern computing age. Even companies like Apple, which spent years trying to convince the world keyboards are unnecessary in the touchscreen era, eventually relented. Well before the iPad Pro hit the scene, iPad (and many other tablet) users were almost always seen with some sort of Bluetooth keyboard case that essentially turned the device into a laptop, the very product it was competing against.
We live in a world where keyboards are treated like pizza dough. Everybody gives the cheese, sauce, pepperoni, and other toppings all the credit for pizza deliciousness, but it’s that layer of dough underneath that makes the whole topping ensemble come together. Similarly, keyboards give operating systems and applications a foundation for productive computing.
So why then is the keyboard looked upon as a relic from the past? The answer is simple. Because it is a relic from the past.
In fact, the modern day QWERTY keyboard’s roots extend back to early typewriters in the 1870s, when die-cast letters at the end of a metal arm slammed against a ribbon of ink and paper at the press of a key. Those arms would often jam together when neighboring keys were pressed simultaneously or in rapid succession, and some people contend the QWERTY key arrangement seeks to optimize the layout of letters to prevent that frustrating problem. Others believe the letter arrangement is tailored to the needs of people who translate Morse code.
Either way, the layout we know as QWERTY (which appeared on the first typewriter with a shift key, making it possible to type both lower- and uppercase letters) continues to be the main method of character input today. Yes, there are other supposedly more rational keyboard layouts, but even the most popular of them, the Dvorak layout, invented by a professor named August Dvorak and his brother-in-law in 1936, has relatively few devotees.
Humans traditionally convey thoughts and ideas via the written version of a language, and the keyboard is a hardware device designed specifically for that purpose. Today we have voice recognition, weird controllers for VR/AR experiences, mice, and touchscreens. Yet a keyboard not too dissimilar from the one your great (great) grandparent used continues to be the most efficient and least error-prone input mechanism in computing.
And it may be so for some time. Did you notice that Scotty, though born 200 years from now, typed on that 1985 keyboard pretty fast? QWERTY slabs will apparently still be in use for centuries to come.
Ready to make your fingers happy? It’s time to put that generic keyboard out to pasture and treat your fingers to a significantly better typing experience. See five keyboards that take pressing plastic buttons to the next level.