jb… a weblog by Jonathan Buys

Keyboards and Wheels

I have one wish for the next major iOS release: full keyboard support. The iPad works with the bluetooth keyboard, and the original iPad came with a keyboard dock, but support for doing things other than basic text is sparse at best. My wish list is small, but meaningful. I would like to see support for all the keys on the keyboard, the ability to command-tab between running applications, and arrow key navigation for apps that include table views.

When I purchased my iPad last summer, I also bought the bluetooth keyboard and the dock. My intention was to be able to use the iPad as a writing device and a terminal for systems administration tasks. Using the iPad for writing works well, but trying to use the keyboard to SSH into a server and manipulate text turned out to be far more difficult than I thought. I use vi constantly, and have the shell on my servers configured to accept vi keybindings, but the iPad did not recognize the esc key, which meant a lot of moving back and forth between the keyboard and touching the screen. For a touch typist, one who has the vi keybindings embedded in muscle memory, this was unacceptable.

The second thing I’d like to be able to do is switch between apps quickly using the keyboard. The existing key-combo command-tab seems like a natural fit for this task. Imagine writing an article, or an email, and needing to reference the text of a web page. If you had the device in your hands at the time you could double-click the home button (or use the fancy new gestures) and tap Safari. If you have the iPad in the dock and are writing a longer email, reaching up from the keyboard to double-click the home button is frustrating.

Bringing up any application with a tableview in horizontal mode should allow the user to navigate that tableview using the arrow keys. It’s been this way on the Mac for as long as I can remember. I can see perhaps needing to touch the screen to select the tableview (if it doesn’t already have first responder status), but after that, the arrow keys should be able to select the next and previous items in the table. For extra points, an app could support right arrowing into the main content area.

Its clear that Apple has put years of thought, experimentation, trial, and error into the touch screen experience. Using the iPad is superior in most ways, but not in all. Apple giving us the iPad was almost like suddenly having a car that could fly, but for the few use cases when you need to drive on the roads (like landing, maybe?) having fully functional wheels, instead of, say, tank tracks, makes the experience much better. Tactile response to keyboard input is necessary to truly lose yourself in the task. Its why the first thing we learned as high schoolers in typing class was to type without looking at the typewriter. We looked at the sheet of paper we were transcribing, and learned to only look at the typewriter when we could feel that we made a mistake. Using the iPad without the hardware keyboard, there is no tactile response, no way to feel the F and J keys, so you are forced back to the first days of learning to type, and having to look at the keyboard, hunting and pecking.

Physical keyboards are the closest thing we have right now to a perfect input device. The more time and attention that is given to learning how to use the keyboard, the faster and more accuratem typing becomes. When you expand your use of the keyboard to include hotkeys, using a mouse becomes more of an annoyance than a necessity. A virtual keyboard is a step back in performance and usability.

mac hardware productivity