Since the launch of the iPad, hubris and hysteria among technology commentators has been gradually increasing. The device is the future; Rupert Murdoch thinks it’s the saviour of journalism; it will change the world; it “can replace any real-world object you own”.
One notion that I take exception to, however, is that the iPad signals the death of the keyboard and that touch interfaces are destined for ubiquity.
Now, I’m no technological conservative – I’ve been using touch-screen phones since before the iPhone came out. But I think a more fundamental point is being missed here, which is that the roles computers play in our lives are multiplying greatly.
Computers used to play a relatively limited set of roles which could be supported with a common set of interface models, mainly centred around the keyboard and the mouse. The keyboard & mouse setup worked when the computer operator was sat at a desk, had to enter lots of data from a large character set, and needed direct access to many (maybe even several hundred) on-screen controls offered by their applications.
Today, not every computer user is sat at a desk and in the need state described above. Computer users might be on the other end of a phone line from the machine itself, operating it through a (notoriously infuriating) voice interface. They might be delivering a parcel and collecting the recipient’s signature using a handheld computer’s (notoriously infuriating) pen interface. And of course the computer user might be using a personal device like a smartphone, which needs to be small and light and whose functions don’t require the sort of intricate and precise interactions supported by the keyboard/mouse combo.
But this doesn’t change the fact that some computer users will still be in situations where the keyboard and mouse paradigm is appropriate. Therefore the keyboard will not die.
What things like the iPad illustrate is that we are using computers more than we used to – in a wider number of contexts and for a wider range of reasons. They don’t replace what we already have, they’re just a new addition to our collection of tools.