Apple's first iPad keyboard and the power of the portrait display

The Smart Keyboard announced last week is a revision of the product that let your first-gen iPad stand tall.

ipad keyboard alternate primary
Credit: Christopher Phin

When Apple introduced its Smart Keyboard alongside the iPad Pro last week—a keyboard that connects directly to the iPad without the hassle of Bluetooth pairing, draws its power from the iPad so you don’t have to charge it, and props it up at the right angle—some people greeted the news with a classic Apple-flavored “finally!” Of course, if you don’t have the memory of a goldfish you will know that Apple introduced a keyboard alongside its very first iPad in 2010 which matched those requirements.

ipad keyboard 01 Christopher Phin

It’s a slightly weird thing; have you ever used it? I didn’t buy one when I imported the very first iPad to my home in the UK—with the help of your esteemed executive editor, Susie Ochs—and I only have one now because I happened to put in a lowball bid for one in perfect condition on eBay, and won. I didn’t need it. I just wanted it.

And like I say: it’s a bit weird. It feels surprisingly ungainly, hefted on its own as an object, in part because it’s heavier than you expect it to be, but also because it’s basically little more sophisticated than a keyboard and the normal dock lumped together into one unit, with a long expanse of rubber tying them together.

ipad keyboard 02 Christopher Phin

It strikes you as a little un-Apple; a bit Rube Goldberg. You half expect the dock and the keyboard to separate, but they don’t. It’s one object, and one awkward object at that.

It does, though, all make sense when you dock the iPad in it, because when you do that and sit in front of the iPad to write, you don’t see the “stand” bit. You just see your iPad floating in front of you, ready to be used, as in the photo at the top.

ipad keyboard 03 Christopher Phin

And you know what? This is still a lovely way to write. Yes, the iPad is a bit close, and I’m sure I’m doing my neck no ergonomic good just now, glowering down at the screen, but I’ve always found there to be something lovely and calming about writing on an iPad with a hardware keyboard.

For me, it’s the perfect 21st-century reinvention of the typewriter. It keeps distractions to a minimum—I can’t unthinkingly Command-Tab to another app when I defocus mid-sentence, and I’ve deliberately suppressed notifications and installed few apps on this old iPad. But it’s sufficiently modern that it’s easy to get my writing off it, in stark contrast to every other time I’ve tried to use older tech to create a distraction-free writing tool.

(I might wear heavy Ray-Ban glasses and hipster jeans but I’m sufficiently in control of my faculties not to be one of those people who in 2015 writes on an actual typewriter. I’m all for beautiful old analog hardware, but I’m not enough of a masochist to write longhand and then transcribe my copy into a digital format to share.)

There’s one other thing about this setup, though, that makes it a lovely place to write, and it’s something that harks back at least to the earliest days of the graphical user interface.

(Were you thinking “yeah, this is all perfectly interesting, Phin, but talking about a product introduced in 2010 is hardly in the spirit of Think Retro”? Well, boom, let me take you back to a decade before even the Macintosh was introduced. How do you like them apples?)

Actually, we’re not talking Apples at all, but Xeroxes. Famously, in December of 1979, Steve Jobs visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, and saw the mouse-driven graphical user interface on the Alto, a filing cabinet-sized computer which some consider to be the first personal computer. He liked what he saw, and promptly used the GUI and mouse in first the Lisa and then the Macintosh.

xerox alto computer Maksym Kozlenko/Wiki Commons

One thing he didn’t take away from PARC, though, was the orientation of the Alto’s display. It was portrait, and it’s this that I especially like about using the original iPad with its keyboard dock. I like it in part because it tickles me that the way it looks echoes such an ur-computer, such an ancient, ancestral design, but I also like it because portrait displays just make a lot of sense.

Sure, these days, we consume vast amounts of content which is landscape, but we still also read reams of sheets of paper every year, and we hold most of them portrait. It’s the classic and correct way to orientate documents for text because it’s hard to read blocks of text when the lines are too long, and because having vertical height lets us easily scan up and down through a document when reading—or writing.

Once I’ve done a first draft on the iPad, I can just lift it out of the keyboard dock, lean back, reach for the coffee, and read over what I’ve written as if I’m holding a sheet of paper.

I know it feels peculiar, but I encourage you to try using a portrait display for a little while, especially if you have an external display connected up to your iMac, say, which can rotate 90 degrees—you just have to correct the interface in the Displays pane of System Preferences. 16:9 displays are a bit extreme for this, but 4:3 displays or better still those somewhat rare 5:4 models are great. Stick Mail on there, or Twitter—I bet you’ll grow to like it—and reflect that in creating the template for all personal computers since 1984, had Jobs copied the orientation of the Alto’s monitor as well as what it displayed, we might all be using portrait displays today.

Hang on; there are more smartphones than PCs in the world, so we kinda already are. Duuuuuude…

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