I’d like to think my time with ITWC, which comes to a close on Sept. 7, has made me a more tech-savvy person.
For example, I now know that “cloud” refers to something other than suspended water particles, “channel” to something other than an outdated method of delivering television shows, and that the phrase “the Internet of Things” is not, in fact, a joke.
I also discovered Spotify in March, and have consequently listened to more new music in the past six months than I had in the preceding six years. (My friends and coworkers had a field day.)
There is, however, one Luddite feature I was clinging to when I started, and despite recently being forced to give up for a week, will continue clinging to as I leave:
I don’t understand how more than 99 per cent of smartphone users survive with a touchscreen keyboard.
On related notes, I have no idea why BlackBerry has fewer than one per cent of the smartphone market, why sales of the Priv were low enough for the company to bow out of smartphone manufacturing entirely, and why TCL-manufacturered, BlackBerry-branded phones such as the KeyOne continue to be the highest-profile smartphones with physical keyboards.
And after being forced to use a touchscreen for a week in order to review the LG ThinQ G7, a serviceable enough premium device whose primary crime was not being my beloved KeyOne, I understand it even less.
My week with the G7 wasn’t my first time being forced to use a touchscreen either: A year and a half ago, the right half of my BlackBerry Priv’s 5.4-inch screen began shorting out if I slid out the keyboard, so for two months I was stuck with a touchscreen phone until the screen died and I traded it for a KeyOne.
I didn’t understand how the majority of smartphone users managed to use a touchscreen keyboard then either.
My earnest attempt to understand the other side
Sadly, one of the most depressing facts I’ve learned in nearly three years of writing about tech is that I’m in the minority: That BlackBerry’s share of smartphone users is less than one per cent isn’t a number I pulled out of thin air.
I have also vividly remembered a presentation by Google research scientist Françoise Beaufays since watching her explain at the 2017 Go North conference how Android developers use a mix of data science and machine intelligence to make touchscreen keyboards as responsive as possible, so when sitting down to write this column I thought she would be the perfect expert to explain how, in fact, users do survive without physical keyboards.
According to Beaufays, part of the answer lies with multilingual users, who can easily switch between languages (Gboard currently supports around 400) – and the letters associated with them – on a touchscreen keyboard in a way they can’t with physical ones.
Then there’s the simple fact that younger users, including Generation Z and younger millennials, associate touch typing with touchscreens rather than physical keyboards.
In my defense, however, Beaufays began our interview by acknowledging that without some tinkering, touchscreen keyboards would be much harder to use than they are, and that many users take their reliability for granted.
“They think it’s a typical version of what used to be typical object,” she said. “And it’s funny how people expect touchscreen keyboards to behave like a physical keyboard – like if I tap the letter A I’m definitely going to get the letter A – but at the same time assume that if they tap the letter A by mistake, because their finger was just a little bit off, then the keyboard will correct it for them.”
Meeting those contradictory expectations, she admitted, can “make my life hard.”
Beaufays also unwittingly supported my hatred of touchscreen keyboards when she said that programming the default Android keyboard, known as Gboard, requires acknowledging that developers are working with a “very lousy signal” – that is, our fingertips – though I’m guessing she would disagree with my conclusion that calling our fingertips “weak” illustrates why our hands are better suited to physical keyboards.
But I digress.
Why touchscreens are more responsive than they have any right to be
The rest of our interview simply left me impressed that touchscreen keyboards work as well as they do.
For example, “we know that when users might be holding the phone in a strange position because they’re walking while they are typing, or lying on a sofa, shifting the perspective of the keys,” Beaufays said. “Or they might be typing really quickly and then randomly hitting a nearby key. So there are different patterns there, and we have to know how to get the right words from it.”
To meet this challenge Gboard’s developers have built what they call the “spatial model,” a language model similar to the predictive algorithms that gradually recognize your favourite words and suggest them as you type.
“The spatial model is what gives us some kind of confidence about your touch point’s accuracy,” Beaufays explained. “Imagine you have a keyboard in front of you – you’re aiming for the letter G, the letter H is right next to it, and you tap somewhere in between. Even if you’re closer to the G the algorithm may think that you really meant an H, depending on what you’re writing. That kind of spatial uncertainty is taken into account.”
“To do corrections, we mix the spacial uncertainty model with the language model in order to find the best answer to what we think you were trying to write.”
An ode to the BlackBerry
To the credit of Beaufays and her colleagues, I saw the results of their efforts when typing messages on the G7. While my fingers always seemed to hit the wrong letter in every other word, nine times out of 10 its autocorrect (which, naturally, I’ve turned off on my KeyOne) knew exactly the word I meant.
My typing speed might even have (slightly) surpassed the speed at which I write sentences on my KeyOne, as I gradually got the hang of choosing suggested words in my neverending quest to touch the right letters.
But in the end, perhaps illustrating Beaufays’ observation that newer generations have simply become used to touchscreen keyboards, my attempts to adopt the ways of my enemies proved fruitless: Typing on a touchscreen just felt wrong, like being forced to use iOS when I was perfectly happy using Windows 10. My messages became shorter. I used Facebook on desktop as often as possible. My beloved Zen Pinball, which lets me use my KeyOne’s shift keys as the flippers, simply wasn’t as fun.
Most of all, my hands missed the weight of a keyboard.
There are plenty of other personal quirks that could explain my preference: I never got the hang of internet slang, for example, because I’ve been writing for so long it’s faster and easier for me to use complete sentences. Turning to the other side of Beaufays’ observation: since my hands are used enough to a full-sized physical QWERTY keyboard that my typing speed is 120 words per minute, it makes sense they would prefer a miniature version too.
And believe it or not, the KeyOne has benefits beyond its keyboard: though I don’t have a ton of experience with other devices, I can definitely say I prefer BlackBerry’s version of Android to LG’s or Samsung’s. It’s easier to navigate, easier to find my apps, stores my messages in one place, and so near as I can tell is more secure. (Which makes sense, since the company has essentially pivoted from smartphone manufacturer to security software developer.)
So here’s to you, BlackBerry, for originally designing your phones with keyboards. And to you, TCL, for taking up their mantle.
And a pox on Apple, Samsung, and the whole lot of you monsters who have made smartphone touchscreens the industry standard.