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Touchscreens won't kill the keyboard -- entirely, Microsoft researcher says

Mark Hachman | Aug. 30, 2013
If touchscreens eventually become the new normal, does this mean an end to legacy keyboards, as well as devices like the BlackBerry Q10?

keyboard

If you're afraid the future of touch-enabled smartphones, tablets, and PCs are going to rip your keyboard from your cold, dead hands, fear not.

Researchers from Xerox PARC and SRI International joined Andy Wilson, principal researcher at Microsoft, Tuesday at a Churchill Club forum at SRI's headquarters in Menlo Park to ponder this question: how will users interact with computers that are beginning to see, hear, and "think" for themselves?

The question had relevance, if only because one of the most famous digital assistants, Apple's Siri, spun off from SRI. SRI also birthed Nuance Communications, which recently told PCWorld that it's working to develop its own Siri-like assistant that will love you.

But the discussion also prompted another question: if tablets, phones, Windows 8, and the Chromebook Pixel are teaching us to use touchscreens and speech inputs, will there be a day when the keyboard becomes the equivalent of the floppy disk and simply fades away?

The gradual disintegration of the BlackBerry Q10 also may have keyboard lovers worrying. TheWall Street Journal reported Thursday that BlackBerry has suffered abysmal sales of the Q10, which was supposed to be the savior of the Canadian company. But the paper quoted one Canadian carrier that reported that sales of the Q10 "just hit the ground and died," and that BlackBerry was offering employees heavily discounted phones as a result.

Bill Mark, who oversees the Information and Computing Sciences department at SRI, said that keyboards will fade away—just not entirely.

"I think it depends on the situation. I'm not sure it will ever happen, because there are some situations where the keyboard is just the right thing," Mark said. "When you think about a pen—or something like a pen, going back to a stylus writing in clay—that's been around for a really long time. That's because it works very well in certain situations. My personal feeling is that keyboards will be like that.

"However, I think we'll be seeing them a lot less, because your example notwithstanding, I think we use keyboards in a lot of situations where they don't belong, because it's what we have," Mark added. "I think those will go away."

Microsoft, of course, has promoted touch as an alternative medium to the keyboard. Microsoft has never said that keyboards or mice would disappear as a result, and Wilson, who helped design the tabletop Surface table and worked with depth cameras—the primary technology behind the Xbox 360's Kinect—agreed.

"I think Bill was right, and I like his answer," Wilson said. "Eventually, it will become more of a niche thing, like programmers for example. You could almost see that with the workstation market. Workstations are going to be these altars to extreme computing, visualization, computational power, Visual Studio. And only a small percentage of users do that."

 

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