iPads & External Keyboards – I Say Nay

Last week, Jonathan made a very compelling argument as to why we would need an external keyboard on the iPad. Now while I concede that on some occasions this would be a boon — typing on the mini for instance — I have to disagree that an external keyboard is needed. Let me share a few of my thoughts on why I feel that it could even be a hindrance and maybe sway you to agree with me.

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Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia).

Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

The story begins on January 29, 2007 — another seemingly normal day at Macworld. The late and great Steve Jobs was giving a keynote. The audience at the time, while unaware of it, was about to witness a turning point in mobile computing and communication, for this was the day the iPhone was introduced.

Up until that point, the norm dictated that phones had physical keys and therefore Apple was quickly dismissed for this foolish action. After all, who would want to type on a screen? Fast forward a few years and the change has been radical. What once seemed alien is now second nature to so many. The younger generation are capable of typing at astounding speeds without having to look at the screen. All it took was a little time, practice and some unformatted expectations.

If there is a lesson to learn here, it is that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss something simply because it does not yet feel right or that it doesn’t show any apparent benefits. Time often has a tendency of proving the contrary.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Necessity often fuels ingenuity and innovation and many developers are rising quickly to the occasion. Already, there is a barrage of apps that tackle the problem of data entry in inventive ways.

Some apps such as Byword, iA Writer or Writing Kit simply provide extended keyboards with common characters (Nebulous Notes allows for customisation of the extended keyboard with snippets and macros) whereas others like to go a little further.

WriteUp, for instance, allows you to navigate the text by swiping two fingers across the onscreen keyboard and by swiping with three fingers you can select text. Another great example is FioWriter that adds the keys Control, Option and Command, as well as an array of great shortcuts for dealing with text.

If the early need for efficient text entry had been quelled by an appendage such as a keyboard case, we would most likely have not seen these ingenious solutions spring to life.

WriteUp is an app with a creative approach to navigating and selecting text.

WriteUp is an app with a creative approach to navigating and selecting text.

Unstifled Creativity and Mobility

I tend to see the iPad more as a creativity rather than a productivity device. Sure, I can get quite a bit of work done on it in a pinch, but when push comes to shove I’ll almost always reach for my Mac.

Creating content, however, is a whole different story. Inspiration can strike at any time and this spurs me to write! Why then would I want to stifle my creativity by adding the extra step of fiddling with an external keyboard?

A blinking cursor on a blank screen can often be defeated with a change of scenery and pace. So when the need arises and I rush out the house, I really don’t want to think about whether I’ll be writing a long piece or short one, or if I should snap on the keyboard cover or maybe ditch the Smart Cover? I just want to grab the iPad and go! No extra burden of unneeded accessories — just unconstrained mobility.

One topic that Jonathan touched upon was the fact that typing anything more than 500 words became laborious. That may not always be a bad thing. I cannot help but be reminded of Patrick Rhone’s book Enough. The entire first draft was written on an iPad using solely the onscreen keyboard and I’m sure his is not the only example.

I found this to be of benefit as the further effort spurred longer thought and greater attention to detail about what I was trying to say and thus, I hope, a better book.

Money Better Applied

In trying economic times, I’m mindful of my expenditures and therefore choose carefully where I invest my hard earned dollars. When I sit down and think about what makes the iPad such a useful device, the same answer surfaces time and time again — the apps. It is the ecosystem of apps, often created by independent developers, that makes the iPad the great tool it is. So when faced with the decision of spending $100 or more on a keyboard or buying a few great apps thus supporting their developers, the decision for me is easy and clear. I think of it as an investment.

Final Thoughts

These are just a few of the reasons why I shy away from and external keyboard. Not to mention the unpractical logistics involved most times — the iPad mini’s keyboard case is small and cramped and many keyboard cases add extra bulk and weight with the constant worry of having to charge them.

It may not be perfect or for everybody, but I believe that with some practice and perseverance the onscreen keyboard can be the best tool for the job. To quote Thomas Fuller:

All things are difficult before they are easy.