Apple's mythical tablet: the text's the thing

Even professional skeptics like me are reaching the point where we have to admit that Apple is probably about to release some sort of tablet device, even if there’s little consensus about what it will look like or precisely what niche it will fill. Me, I find myself wondering about one aspect of the tablet idea in particular: text entry.

Wait, wait, wait. We’re talking about a revolutionary new device that will let you watch videos, play music, and probably even control your own squadron of death robots (not included), and I’m worried about something as mundane as text entry?

Well, yeah.

As unexciting as it might be, text entry is still a huge part of the way we interact with our computers. The iPhone has relaxed that dependence somewhat—after all, we spend most of our time tapping, flicking, and pinching—but even it can’t escape the old QWERTY keyboard, even if it is merely virtual. But we need it for sending text messages, writing e-mails, even entering our login credentials on Twitter or our mobile banking site.

If rumor proves true, the Apple tablet will boast a screen in the 10-inch range. I have a hard time picturing how I would enter text on a device of this sort. Obviously, I’ve got no insider knowledge of what the tablet will look like, as I’m sure will become readily apparent the moment it’s actually released. Still, I’m curious enough about how I’m going to use this device, that I spent the time painstakingly making up calculating the odds on the different ways you might enter text on Apple’s new device.

Integrated physical keyboard - Steve Jobs’s antipathy for buttons is well-documented. Why does he wear turtlenecks and sneakers? No buttons. Given the success of the iPhone and iPod touch’s virtual keyboard and the advantages it confers (infinitely customizable layout, easy localization, no moving parts), it would be utterly baffling to see Apple take a step back with the tablet. Odds: 500 to 1

Wireless physical keyboard - Being able to use one of Apple’s shiny Bluetooth keyboards in conjunction with the tablet is marginally more reasonable than an integrated keyboard—then again, we’ve been hoping for Bluetooth keyboard support for the iPhone since before it came out. And Apple probably doesn’t want to promote the idea that the device itself is so inherently limited that it requires an accessory in order to do something as basic as text entry. Odds: 750 to 1 (for Bluetooth only); 75 to 1 (Bluetooth as an option)

Virtual keyboard (iPhone version) - If you’re an iPhone owner, you’ve probably gotten pretty accustomed to the device’s virtual keyboard—I can type out even medium-length missives on it without too much trouble. But let’s cut to the chase: I’m never going to use it to write my next novel, or even my next 700-word article. My MacBook keyboard beats it for text entry, er, hands down for reasons as simple as the ability to type with ten fingers instead of two.

Furthermore, there’s the question of how one would use an iPhone-style thumb keyboard on a device with a 10-inch screen. You can’t hold it in landscape orientation and use your thumbs to type—they won’t reach the full width of the screen (unless Apple does something wacky like putting half of a QWERTY keyboard on each side of the screen). Portrait mode raises similar problems: try holding up a letter-sized magazine and “typing” on it—not exactly comfortable. What if you hold it in one hand and type with the other? Slow and inefficient, even if you get good enough to type with more than one finger in hunt-and-peck style. Odds: 50 to 1 (standard iPhone keyboard); 10 to 1 (something clever like that split keyboard model)

Virtual keyboard (MacBook version) - Okay, so if an iPhone virtual keyboard won’t work, what about a full QWERTY-style virtual MacBook keyboard that you can type on with all ten fingers? Well, size is an issue: cramped keyboards are the worst thing about netbooks, and Apple loves its full-size keyboard (as Jobs specifically said when he announced the MacBook Air). Also, ever tried touch-typing on a hard surface? Hope you like fingertip bruises. And let's not forget there’s a reason they call it touch-typing. When there are no actual keys to feel, it’s going to be a bit more difficult—you’re going to have to stare at the keyboard to make sure you’re hitting the right keys (although, to be fair, leveraging the iPhone’s auto-correct could help partially solve this problem). Then there’s the ergonomic issue: you’ll have to put the tablet flat on a surface to type on it, and it also means tilting your head down to see what’s on the screen—that’s no good for anybody but your chiropractor. Odds: 300 to 1

Stylus - The stylus was a great idea back in the days of the Palm Pilot and the Newton, when everybody still used pens all the time, but we’ve moved on, folks. I mean, have you seen kids’ handwriting these days? Aside from appealing to the hardcore Newton aficionados out there, I doubt that Apple wants to evoke the ghost of that particular device. Not to mention styli are easy to lose. That said, Apple has had a handwriting-recognition technology called Inkwell squirreled away inside OS X since Jaguar, though right now it’s only really useful if you’ve got a graphics tablet or are using OWC’s ModBook. It wouldn’t be impossible for them to have dusted that off and given it an update to today's technology. Odds: 200 to 1

Finger-based - When Apple introduced the iPhone, it made a leap from using a mouse pointer as a cursor to using your finger as the pointing device. Why not use your finger to write text as well? You can’t lose it like the stylus, and again, you can probably use that Inkwell technology to recognize handwriting. But writing is a lot slower than typing, and your finger is far less precise than a stylus. Odds: 75 to 1

Voice recognition - Every Star Trek nerd—yours truly included—has probably gone through a phase of trying to use dictation and voice-control software on their Mac, usually with mixed results. It works great in certain scenarios, but ever try to use voice control while watching the game, with your buddies yelling in the background? And if you think the world is creepy enough as it is with people wandering around yelling into their Bluetooth earpieces, wait until they’re not even talking to other people. Plus, do you really want to speak your Google searches out loud? I thought not. Then again, the Dragon Dictation app for the iPhone has been surprisingly good in my brief usage of it and Google has added voice-input throughout the Nexus One, so maybe the terrifying future is closer than we might think. Odds: 100 to 1 (by itself); 10 to 1 (as an option)

No text entry - Seems crazy, right? But maybe it’s crazy like a fox. Wouldn’t it be just like Steve Jobs to come out and proclaim that you just don't need text entry on the new Apple tablet? After all, who needs to type things in when the tablet knows everything? Want to look up the weather? The tablet knows where you are. Read your e-mail? The iPhone can sync your accounts from your computer—why not the tablet? Want to watch videos, read books, listen to music? It’s all there, easily browsable by title, artist, genre, album, and so on. But if you want to reply to messages, well, that’s what your iPhone or MacBook is for. Perhaps you could even sync frequently-used snippets of text (for example, your name or your address) via Mobile Me or some other service, and then paste them in as necessary. But then again, this might be a little too revolutionary, even for Steve Jobs and his button-massacring ways. Odds: 150 to 1

And now for something completely different - Everybody likes to watch Steve Jobs pull a rabbit out of his hat—especially if he’s not even wearing a hat. (Did I just blow your mind?) Will it be nose-based text entry? Psychic text entry? Camera-based lip-reading? Sub-vocal voice recognition? There are so many possibilities that it wouldn’t surprise me to see something that we'd never even thought of. Odds: 20 to 1

Now, while these odds are obviously the result of careful thought (and a college statistics class that I took ten years ago), it goes without saying that I wouldn’t traipse down to the local bookie with your piggy bank and a claw hammer. However, were I the kind of person to place the occasional flutter, I'd lay down my money on Steve Jobs coming on stage on January 27 and unveiling a device that supports a few of the above options.

Just so long as none of them involve buttons.

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