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Apple Tablet: The Mystery of Data Input

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on August 17, 2009

I swore to myself that I wouldn’t write about the Apple tablet, that great unicorn of the high tech world, until I had some actual knowledge of what it really was and when it would appear. But I can’t resist weighing in on one subject that most commentators seem to be skirting: How do you enter data?

We have two reasonably successful models for entering alphanumeric data. One is keyboard that sits on a flat surface and that you type on with ten fingers. The other is a miniature keyboard, real as on most BlackBerrys or virtual as on an iPhone, that you type on with your thumbs while cradling the device in your palms. (Let’s regard the 12-key phone keypad as a one-handed variant of the thumb keyboard.)

The problem with a 7- to 10-in. tablet is that neither model works on it. There’s no room for a physical keyboard, which in any event would require lying the device down on a flat surface to use it. And it’s too big for a thumb keyboard because unless you have enormous hands, you can’t comfortably hold the device that way. Your thumbs can’t reach the middle of the keyboard while holding the device by its corners. And the top-heavy tablet wants to rotate backward, a situation that, at best, puts a lot of stress on your wrists.

Amazon's Kindle is a good illustration of the problem. On the Kindle 2, the keyboard is marginally usable with the device held like an oversized BlackBerry; part of the problem is that the keyboard isn't very good, but the basically difficulty is that the Kindle's size puts the arrangement on the margin of usability.The keyboard on the larger Kindle DX cannot be used this was at all; you just have to lie the thing down to type.

On a Kindle this is a minor problem, because most folks find little use for the keyboard. It is useful mainly for searching, either within a book or in the Kindle store, and most people don't do that very frequently.

A tablet would be another story. I find that I type on the iPhone quite a bit even though I barely use it for email. I have to enter a lot of URLs, often have to type content into Web pages, especially searches of one sort or another. To be successful, I think data entry on a tablet has to be as good as on an iPhone. That's not a terribly high standard, but it may be a difficult one to meet.

I think I have tried every device bigger than a phone and smaller than a PC that has hit the market in the U.S. (I know there are a lot of Asian efforts that never made it to this side of the Pacific) and every one of them has been awful at data entry. I think this (along with the failure of software makers to come up with a good user interface optimized for 7- to 10-in. screens) is a primary reason why the class of products that Intel calls Mobile Internet Devices, has been a dismal flop.

Apple's designers and engineers are in a class by themselves. The iPhone is living proof of their ability to create new product classes and to solve ergonomic problems previously considered intractable. But with a tablet-sized device, they really have their work cut out for them.

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Reader Comments

Mike O'Connor

August 17, 2009 10:55 AM

A device with a screen of this size needs technology for 'palm rejection' because your palm/hand/wrist will rest on the surface while you type on the virtual screen or write on screen using the stylus (conductive stick) using Apple 'Ink' technology. For those who type a lot a Bluetooth keyboard will work well. More predictions on my blog


August 17, 2009 11:03 AM

I think the data entry's gonna be based upon handwriting recognition. You would probably have a virtual keyboard with a pen that you could hunt and peck on, but you'd have to have a plug-in or wireless keyboard to get any real speed out of it. Anyway. tablets have their uses, especially for taking notes in class. The teacher usually puts more than just text on a board, often drawing charts or pictures to illustrate his points. Try copying a handwritten pie chart from a chalkboard into a blackberry. I'm not sure whether you'll be able to copy from a wireless whiteboard into a pc in the future, but I would hope they're developing those abilites. I'd rather have the professor's little pie apper in his handwriting in my pc than to try to copy it myself any day.

Steve Wildstrom

August 17, 2009 11:13 AM

@Squeezebox--A huge problem with handwriting recognitions (or speech recognition,. another possibility) is that while they can do quite well at regular text, they are dreadful at things like URLs or email addresses, where their predictive abilities are either useful or positively damaging.

Another issue is the stylus, which would be essential for handwriting reco. One of the great accomplishments of the iPhone is that it killed the stylus for touchscreens. I think the last thing Apple wants to do is bring it back, especially since a capacitive touchscreen requires an active stylus. The whole thing starts looking a bit too much like a Newton for anyone's comfort.

Gaspar G de P

August 17, 2009 11:59 AM

The keyboard could very well be divided in two and placed in both bottom corners of the device (or potentially allow the user to slide them up and down the sides of the tablet).

This would allow for a keyboard roughly the size of the iPhone's when it is on its side.


August 17, 2009 12:11 PM

The keyboard should be a virtual QWERTY keyboard on the screen of the tablet. When set on a table, it can be used to touch type. It can be resized smaller for hunt-and-peck typist. Maybe audio feed back can be employed.

Steve Wildstrom

August 17, 2009 12:54 PM

@@xyz123--Split keyboard have been tried, notably in the Samsung Q1 Windows UltraMobile PC and in the original Kindle. They have not been successful, largely because they turn out to be really hard to use.

Todd Baker

August 17, 2009 01:28 PM

I was going to post my suggestion, but Gaspar beat me to it.

It would be very easy to put the same size iphone keyboard (maybe a little a bigger) in the bottom right or left hand corners. You make it user configurable for lefties and righties.

To try it out, pick up a 8x10 legal pad of paper and notice how you hold it and where your thumbs are. It's perfect placement, and your hand is cradling the tablet freeing up your thumbs.


August 17, 2009 01:47 PM

If the Apple is bigger than the 7" Samsung Q1 and 6" Kindle a QWERTY may fit on-screen. A 8-10" screen would increase usability from key size, but not from tactile feedback, unless Apple has some advanced input feature up its sleeve.

Cliff Allen

August 17, 2009 03:56 PM

There are a number of ways to get text into a tablet that Apple and third-parties might provide.

I have used a Motion Computing (slate) Tablet PC for 90% of my writing for several years, so I'm using some of those techniques now.

Handwriting on-screen is quite good. The on-screen keyboard works well with a stylus, but is slow. I also use a traditional keyboard plugged into the dock, and sometimes use a flexible, roll-up keyboard when I'm away from the office.

Third party software products also do a good job of anticipating the words I'm writing.

And, of course, don't forget about voice recognition, which one day will be a "ready for prime time player."


August 17, 2009 04:07 PM


August 17, 2009 07:46 PM

The keyboard will be a three dimensional force field scanned by low watt optical lasers and electosensitive radio recievers. Much like typing in a pool of jello.

Corrections will be done through telephatic telemetry, and occaisional curses.


August 17, 2009 08:11 PM

I think the examples on this site, show that actually, various forms of (easy) data input could work on the Tablet... Although personally... I still prefer a nice solid keyboard...

Steve Wildstrom

August 17, 2009 09:44 PM

@Bill--Why not go to all-telepathic input? It could be the Sookie Stackhouse of digital devices.

Steve Wildstrom

August 17, 2009 09:50 PM

A@realitydreaship--Those are mockups, so of course anything is possible. I guess the real question is whether you would be satisfied with a virtual keyboard that can only be used on a flat surface--or holding it in one hand and pecking at the keyboard with one finger on the other? That's certainly the only way to use the keyboard, admittedly terrible, on the Kindle DX or the on-screen keyboard on any Windows tablet in slate mode, which some of those mockup keyboards resemble.


August 17, 2009 10:20 PM

@Steve. Version 2.0 will be full telephathic. Requires full human brain capacity, and thus will be useful by only half the population.


August 17, 2009 10:26 PM

It's still about text...Moses was carrying tablets of words-- who cared about their look & feel & form factor. I see text as still the most important thing for a tablet to handle, but with better multimedia and better input than the Kindle for example. Text has outgrown the "i" (for "itty-bitty") Phone and Pod Touch. And among other conquests by Apple, near the top has been handling text.

Speech recognition is pretty resource intense but would be a perfect complement. The comment about URLs is right on, though.


August 18, 2009 05:13 AM

Yeah why buy a Macbook or an iPhone when you can get the worst of both worlds? Lacks a physical keyboard, can't carry in one hand and manipulate with the other hand, watch movies by either holding it with both hands or flat on a table, this thing's gonna be a megahit!

Cormac O'Reilly

August 18, 2009 08:44 AM

Aside from the obvious array of Apple bluetooth devices, consider that this is media centric. I don't have a keyboard for my TV or radio, and it's about time we moved away from the traditional PC funtions.

nor pop

August 18, 2009 01:28 PM

It`s all about software....we don`t have to understand how they do it...but we know it`ll be simple....and intuitive.
step 1:...where do you want the alpha numerical data .
step 2: strech this area out as large as necessary...and write with finger or stylus (ps why do you think it took so long to bring to market....perfecting this interface of course!!!)
step 3...double shrinks back.

Ken from Philly

August 18, 2009 07:19 PM

I can't understand the complaints. A 10" laptop will have a full QWERTY keyboard. It's close to the area of a piece of paper for taking notes. I can't wait for a tablet that size which is under 2 lbs, to me it's a mini laptop to travel with the mega power of AAPL chips and with the aps that make you say "WOW!" as in an iPhone. If you don't want one, then that's one less consumer for me to get in line behind when the orders come piling in. C'mon, folks, how many AAPL products have truly not exceeded expectations? My buzz tells me it will be priced under $1K (unusual for a WIndows based tablet), and I want one for my business.


August 18, 2009 11:23 PM

@Gaspar and norpop, I think you 2 have it. You can have small split keyboard, or you can expand it for the whole page, with a quick motion, depending on what you require at the moment. Single handed data entry, or if more time allowed, a full to handed keyboard...


August 19, 2009 04:28 AM

Todd and Gaspar, the idea's been tried:

All the 1st generation UMPC models had a copy of DialKeys installed.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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