Optimal input methods on mobile phones?

I am writing this post via the WordPress application on an iPod Touch (Note: placing links had to be done on a PC afterwards). Typing on a virtual keyboard from iPhone/iPod Touch is somewhat easier and faster than on a twelve-key phone keypad (some might disagree) but harder than on a conventional PC keyboard. Still, a virtual keyboard is convenient enough to create writings longer than an SMS, although you are not likely to comfortable writing a book with this device.

Input methods on cellular phones and other portable gadgets are meeting a critical stage, because the phonewords standard (which assigns three or four alphabetic letters to a numerical key) is not feasible to yield an ergonomical experience to anyone who wants to do more than sending a few bytes of messages back and forth. Phonewords have been expedient to be used in a string of numbers like 800 toll-free numbers in the U.S. (e.g. 800-NEW-CARS), but meanwhile trying to write more than a sentence or two on phonewords turns out to be cumbersome because it is not an optimal way to input texts, after all. This has never been a problem at all before mobile phones became widespread, because no one needed to type a lot of things on wired telephones sitting at home (even FAX machines do not need a keyboard). If you carry around a mobile gadget that can run a number of applications other than simple voice conversation, however, we have a whole different situation to tackle.

So far the best way to settle this issue is to somehow emulate the computer keyboard on mobile phones, be it a virtual onscreen keyboard as in Apple iPhone, or a mini-sized keyboard as in RIM Blackberry. Although there are obvious differences between the two, the fundamental contribution that the two approaches made to the history of portable devices is that they liberated mobile phones from the legacy of traditional telephones in terms of form factor. Apple and RIM may not be the first to adopt touchscreen or mini-sized keyboard on cellular phones, but it should be acknowledged that they are the ones who made them mainstream. And nowadays, everyone else is mimicking either (or even both) of those two solutions on their smartphones.

Maybe, in a few years, the term smartphone itself may become obsolete, if every mobile phone gains capability to process various types of information akin to some kind of a portable computer. One of the aspects in this direction has been to expand the adoption of sophisticated operating systems onto mobile phones, including Nokia Symbian, Microsoft Windows Mobile, and Google Android. Apart from software, the methods to interact with the device are another key area which requires further innovation on the road.  We may need more intuitive and easy-to-pick-up pathways than small editions of QWERTY keyboards to handle information on mobile phones, like voice control, which needs voice recognition technology with an array of different languages, so it would be very difficult to implement in practice. It is likely that standard telephone keypads will stay, but we may see less and less of it in the coming years. Time may tell.


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