Some of my colleagues still type on keyboards designed by Apple in the 1980s. What I’m saying is, some people really care about keyboards. But whether or not you have opinions about keyboards, they’re important tools to help us get written language into our digital devices.
On Tuesday AppleInsider reported on an Apple patent for a multitouch keyboard that would, if implemented, allow the company to remove the trackpad entirely–because the keyboard would itself become a trackpad, with key caps as touch-sensitive surfaces. It’s a pretty wacky idea, and plenty of Apple’s patents never end up in real products. Companies patent lots of crazy things.
The report got me thinking: With all of the recent complaining about the MacBook keyboard, where is Apple going with text input in the future?
With the MacBook, Apple created the thinnest traditional keyboard it could make in order to minimize the thickness of the overall device. It tried to offset the reduction in key travel with increased clickiness and wider, more stable key caps. Some people love that keyboard, others just don’t see what the big deal is, and some (including your faithful correspondent) don’t like it.
It’s funny that there’s so much conversation about the MacBook’s keyboard, considering how little we talk about keyboards on iOS devices. iOS supports external keyboards, sure, and of course there are the software keyboards Apple provides for the iPhone and iPad. (iOS 8 added support for third-party keyboards, though I rarely talk to anyone who actually uses one and loves it.)
In some ways, I feel like Apple’s strategy when it comes to text input on iOS devices–and this is certainly magnified on the Apple Watch–is that keyboards are necessary but not particularly exciting. The Apple Watch, which doesn’t have room for a keyboard, lets you send messages via speech-to-text, or via recorded audio file. Speech-to-text keeps getting better throughout iOS. The future is voice.
I’m not saying Apple’s ditching keyboards. There are plenty of times when people are simply not in a position to talk into their phones–a keyboard is a simple, quiet way to input text. But put yourself in Apple’s shoes and imagine where you want to take your text-input technology over the next 15 years. Is anyone at Apple really imagining how the company is going to evolve the keyboard between now and 2030?
My guess is that Apple views the keyboard as a solved problem. And while keyboards can be improved, they’re always going to be keyboards.
As much as I love car and truck metaphors, and as loyal as I am to my Mac, it’s hard not to think of the Mac (and yes, the personal computer category as a whole) as one big pile of old tech, the typewriter of modern digital devices. It operates on an older metaphor, saddled with cursors and keyboards and other accoutrements that were once required but are now optional.
This doesn’t mean the Mac isn’t powerful–I’d much rather write a novel on a physical keyboard than dictate it into my phone! But if you’re Apple, looking for places to advance technology and create the next big thing, the Mac probably doesn’t jump out as a huge opportunity compared to products like the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and maybe even the Apple TV.
When I see a story like the one about the new Apple keyboard patent, I also realize the careful line Apple has to walk with Mac design. Push too far, and your customers won’t follow you. If someone wants to buy a MacBook, you can’t give them an iPad. If they wanted an iPad, they’d buy one.
Could Apple ditch the trackpad and integrate touch sensors into the keyboard? Sure. It sounds interesting, and the fact that Apple is apparently investigating such technology shows that there are still engineers at Apple trying to find ways to advance the state of the art of the personal computer.
I also sometimes wonder if Apple might one day try to replace the Mac’s keyboard with a multitouch display equipped with haptic feedback. Those of us who are freaked out about the lack of travel in the MacBook keyboard would go nuts if that happened. But would it break the metaphor? Maybe.
At some point, Apple will discover that all its best ideas for Mac innovation push the product too far, making it into something it’s not. And on that day–I don’t think we’ve reached it yet, but I suspect we can see it from here–the personal computer will truly have run out of room. You’ve got to give Apple credit, though. It’s just about the only company who’s still trying to find ways to evolve the traditional personal computer. The moment that Apple runs out of road, though, is the moment that the PC joins the typewriter in the box of old technology.