“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
Touch screen smartphones have become ubiquitous and seem to have established a standard interface. Gone on the whole are keyboards for these; a smooth, simple screen seems to be a better option for use, right?
But let’s think back to other ubiquitous devices such as the watch. From the 1930s, pocket watches were out and wristwatches in. All had a relatively standard and practical face to tell the time.
Then in the 80’s quartz digital took over by storm. Screens rather than a clock face could provide more information: calculator watches, world times, data storage, etc., etc.
It seemed to take hold because it was ‘just better’, but there was more to it than that. It started to become cheaper to manufacture and required less skill to create – mass production rather than hand made. Companies all over the world cropped up making these while the number of active traditional watchmakers shriveled.
End of story? Well, not really. Traditional watchmakers adapted the better aspects of digital technology and created ‘hybrid’ watches that still had the functional face but now with quartz accuracy, and the trend from screen moved back toward traditional clock faces. Look at any watchmaker’s website and you will likely see far more clock faces than screens.
There is now a slow but growing trend to smart watches; will this be the end of traditional watches again, like when quartz watches sprang up or smartphones ‘who needs a watch when you can look at your phone’ (apart from the fact you need to have it clutched in your hand or take it out of your pocket when you could just look at your wrist).
The reason I speak of watches when I started with smartphones is because of the similarities to non-keyboard and QWERTY phones. Smartphones without keyboards are much cheaper to produce, need less tooling to manufacture and have fewer parts, and many have been convinced this is better for the customer. After all, a lot of people jumped to smartphones from the keypad ones, and they found it quicker and easier to type. But how many who already had keyboard smartphones thought it was a better move – a slide-out QWERTY keyboard had tactile feedback (Yes, our brain still prefers that regardless of what you may think.) They are able to type on the move and even without looking. Try that on a touchscreen phone while moving. It also means you are not taking up screen space with a virtual keyboard. Muscle memory doesn’t really come into effect with a touchscreen, either.
So, maybe after the euphoria has died down and people start to want what’s practical rather than what’s fashionable, we may start to see a return to smartphones that have the best of both worlds: touch screens and QWERTY keyboards. This is a chicken-and-egg situation, though, as manufacturers will be hesitant now that they are able to sell touch screen phones for the same price as QWERTY smartphones while making more profit. But the demand for a QWERTY keyboard on smartphones may push them back, especially with competition now; it’s looking like $25 smartphones are not that far in the future. A different price model may appear where you actually start to get what you pay for, rather than pay for what’s in vogue, ie., pay a little more for what’s more practical to use.
But humans don’t always think practically, or we wouldn’t have people walking around with their pants hanging off their arse. So, let’s wait and see.