"An iPhone with a keyboard? Never!" Well, not till mid 09, anyway...

by Guy J Kewney | posted on 01 July 2008

It is an article of Faith, of course, that whatever Steve Jobs does, is Right. And so, since the iPhone currently has no keyboard on it, it must logically follow that it is wrong to have a keyboard, and therefore that Steve Jobs will never produce a version that does have a keyboard.

Fervent fans can therefore see no reason to change the iPhone from its current "type on the touch screen, or not at all" design. As one of the more zealous remarked when the suggestion was even mentioned: "The only people who think it needs a keyboard, are people who have never used it."

Rumours from inside Cupertino suggest that Jobs himself doesn't have this sort of religious hangup about his own work. Reports from inside mobile operators show that whether or not he ever makes it work, he is already trying to make a "slide-out" keyboard for a corporate version of the iPhone.

If this version does appear on the market, it won't be this year, and certainly won't be aimed at the consumer market. Consumers love the sleek, elegant design of the iPhone, and quickly fall in love with the on-screen keyboard.

But Steve Jobs can do the sums. In America, iPhone has perhaps overtaken Blackberry in total sales - but these sales are in what they call "the executive corridor."

Worldwide, it has not escaped the attention of mobile network execs that the bulk of corporate sales are not into the executive corridor. Rather, they are phones which are provided for staff, and the vast bulk of them have full-QWERTY keyboards; and all the best-selling ones, Nokia, Sony-Ericsson and HTC alike, have slide-out keyboards. The popular Danger Sidekick, too, has a slide-out (spin-out) QWERTY keyboard.

The market which buys these phones, wants QWERTY and they don't want to type on the screen. They "just know" that they wouldn't like it.

Arguably, they're wrong, of course. Quite conceivably, after a week of sending emails typed on the touch-screen of the iPhone, they'd "get it" and love it. But how will they ever find out?

Compare the numbers; those who have never used it, versus those who have, and it will cross your mind that perhaps it would be a good option to provide, if you want to increase sales, and expose sceptics to the new user interface.

The issue is, of course, a classic rwars subject. We had similar religious wars over Intel chips, when the Faithful maintained that the PowerPC chips inside the Apple Mac family were four times faster than Intel processors, and Jobs would never abandon them.

And before that, there was the operating system; the Mac OS, inherently, was superior to anything *nixy and so no Unix system would be able to keep up. Before that, the Motorola 68000 family was equally sacrosanct.

Will Jobs launch an iPhone with a keyboard? He says "definitely not" and is emphatic about it. So that's that.

Well, yes, and then again, maybe. What he is doing, apparently, is canvassing the idea with operators. "If you had a keyboard version, how many would you take?"

And he has taken this beyond just chatting: actual prototypes - not just mockups! - have been sent to senior executives inside the operators. I'm not allowed to even hint which operators... but I can report that the keyboard has "issues" which are not yet resolved.

In another part of the forest, of course, Apple's rivals have the opposite problem. They want touch-screen technology and they are working hard on it. And they, too, have "issues" with making it work properly.

Sources inside one operator say that there definitely will not be a slide-out keyboard this year. But, I'm told, they are definitely expecting to see one, aimed specifically at corporate buyers, around this time next year.

Like all rumours, of course, it's premature; and people can change their minds. But it's not speculation: the prototypes actually exist and they (nearly) work.

It's also worth remembering: Operators aren't Apple. They don't have the Apple design flair, the creative vision, the urge to rock to boat. And they are looking at a surge in sales of HTC phones, all based on Windows Mobile, and many with really cute slide-out keyboards. If that is where the mobile buyers are going, they think, we should go there.

If Jobs actually launches one to capture this market, will it succeed?

That's another question entirely! Contrary to the protestations of the zealots, this would not be the death-knell of the iPhone.

After all, the no-keyboard iPhone does NOT depend for its credibility on the absence of an alternative keyboard version. It either works, or it doesn't. Anybody who has learned to use it will know that it works adequately; but you will find people who say that they'd prefer a real keyboard.

My own experience is that it works for iPhone standard things. That's to say, it's great at web browsing, and all the functions that iPod music playing requires, and wonderful for scanning photographs. It is, in short, a genuine innovation in user interfaces, and a successful innovation.

But innovation isn't what users all want!

Many of us are conservative. Long memories are needed to go back to the days of WordStar text editing, and the resistance that people trained on WordStar put up when asked to use WordPerfect. And in their turn, WordPerfect users absolutely refused to adapt to Microsoft Word, however innovative the GUI might have been; Microsoft had to produce a version of Word which obeyed WP keystrokes.

In the phone business, users are notoriously conservative. Users of Sony Ericsson devices denounce Nokia as "plain wrong!" and vice versa; and yet really, the differences are trivial.

When it comes to keyboard skills, texting speedsters regard predictive T9 typing as wimpish. Both T9 and triple-type texters regard qwerty phones like the Nokia E61 or the Blackberry or the HTC devices as perverse.

So it really isn't much use going to the dyed-in-the-wool qwerty button pusher and saying: "But this is Inherently Better!" in evangelising tones. Like a small child who won't try porridge because they don't like it, they know they don't like it... so they won't try. And many people who hate Guinness have, similarly, never tasted a drop. That's human nature!

In the long run, it really doesn't matter to Apple whether people who get a keyboard on their office iPhone end up never using it. As long as they get an office iPhone, they have the chance of trying it, and, maybe, falling in love. As long as their company phone is a Blackberry or an HTC Touch or a Sony Ericsson X1 or a Nokia E61, they'll use it, and regard the iPhone with suspicion.

Steve Jobs switched from Motorola to PowerPC to Intel chips. He does what he needs to do to sell stuff. If he has to put a keyboard on the back of some iPhones to sell more of them, my bet is: he'll do it.

This story has also appeared on TheRegister

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