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.