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The iPad Keyboard: When Will Apple Get Real?

The iPad Keyboard: When Will Apple Get Real?

IBM wants to create better touchscreen apps so it can sell more Big Data analytics software, and it turned to Apple to get some iPad tablet love. Nice. I get that -- but plenty of business users need to type, too, in more than 140-character blips. If Microsoft can make a decent keyboard cover, you would think Apple could, right? Is Apple willing to address the most obvious weakness of the iPad?

By Chris Maxcer
08/07/14 7:13 AM PT

I keep wondering when Apple is going to hear the alarm and respond to the real iPad keyboard wakeup call. Apple can point to touch-based apps all it wants -- even going so far as to partner with IBM to help the company deliver better enterprise mobile apps -- but the fact remains: Some people just want to type on their damn iPad, and Apple's touchscreen solutions suck.

I also keep hoping that Apple will turn its design acumen and considerable tech and manufacturing resources toward building a real, physical keyboard specifically for use with iPads. It could be a case or it could be a cover like the one that Microsoft manufactures for its Surface Pro 3.

It needs to be thin, light, and integrated. The current Bluetooth keyboard that you can pair with an iPad? The keys are fantastic, of course, but it's clunky and doesn't really connect seamlessly to the iPad in any physical way, much less make sense for travel.

A real physical keyboard is the design challenge that Apple needs to throw a bit of time and effort at -- and just complete the job.

Why Not 3rd-Party Keyboards?

The world is littered with dozens of keyboard/case/cover solutions for the iPad, manufactured by third-parties. Some of these are good, many have flaws, and most don't have a particularly great balance of quality and cost. Which one should a consumer buy?

There are so many different choices, some with cramped and mushy keys, some that force your iPad into a clunky laptop form factor, and some that just cost too much. A consumer in this space has choices -- but really, I think a good many consumers end up getting that deer-in-the-headlights look of frozen confusion. So they don't act at all.

Enter Schools

I'm wondering if Apple is paying attention to what's going on in schools these days. While it has sold 13 million iPads to education customers globally -- and while the iPad is the tablet of choice in 85 percent of school districts in the United States, at least a handful of schools seem to be rethinking their iPad investments.

In fact, some schools are selling their iPads and ditching their tablet programs in favor of Chromebooks, according to a reasonably researched piece in The Atlantic.

Chromebooks are essentially very low-cost laptops that run only when connected to the Internet, with access to files and apps from the cloud.

Why the switch? Mostly, it seems, because sometimes students have to work -- to write, to type. You can build all the pretty Keynote presentations you want, and swipe through narrated content about lemurs in Madagascar, but kids ultimately are going to need to write essays and reports -- and yes, blog. Even for super adaptable kids, typing on a real physical keyboard is easier and more efficient.

Consider this tidbit from Meghan Murphy's Atlantic report:

"While nobody hated the iPad, by any means, the iPad was edged out by some key feedback, said Joel Handler, Hillsborough's director of technology. Students saw the iPad as a 'fun' gaming environment, while the Chromebook was perceived as a place to 'get to work.' And as much as students liked to annotate and read on the iPad, the Chromebook's keyboard was a greater perk -- especially since the new Common Core online testing will require a keyboard."
Ouch.

Plus, writing is a fundamental skill and learning tool in and of itself. The very act of writing teaches kids something about the subjects they're studying, and sometimes it even teaches them about themselves -- if not to imagine how someone else might feel. Think empathy isn't important in education? What are the latest headlines from our war zones these days?

Back to Apple's Ability to Understand

Meanwhile, IBM wants to create better touchscreen apps so it can sell more Big Data analytics applications, and it turned to Apple to get some iPad tablet love. Nice. I get that -- but plenty of business users need to type, too, in more than 140-character blips.

In Apple's most recent financial call with analysts, CEO Tim Cook highlighted the company's efforts at continuity -- of making its discreetly different devices work really well together so humans could transition between them seamlessly.

"Customers can start an activity like writing an email on one device and pass it to another, picking up where they left off without missing a beat," he said. "They will even be able to make and receive iPhone calls on their Mac with just a click."

This is cool, definitely, and I'm looking forward to it, but it falls short in situations where customers want their tablet to do more.

What's worse than this desire of wanting a more versatile and productive iPad?

Knowing that it's entirely possible.

Heck, if Microsoft can make a decent keyboard cover, you would think Apple could, right?

Now, I'm not trying to say that Apple customers want to buy a single device to do everything. Just type -- that's it. Easily. With little effort. Not with the need to figure out and acquire third-party stands and keyboards.

You want to make these technology decisions easy for educational institutions? It's dirt simple: Remove the most common barrier a parent or educator will imagine when they think about iPads in the classrooms. I bet that most every gut response comes back to typing.

But... isn't Apple improving the typing experience in iOS 8 with QuickType and support for third-party (app-based) keyboards? Yes.

Is it welcome? Yes. Is it enough?

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

iOS 8 will predict what you're going to type and offer suggestions for full words based on the context of what you're typing -- as well as whom you're typing a message to. So a message to a friend will result in word options that will be different than the words offered for a message to your boss. As you use your iOS device, it will get smarter about predicting which sorts of words you actually use.

Fantastic for the iPhone!

Still, I expect my iPad to be more powerful. By its very nature, an iPad is not a single-purpose tool. No one looks at an iPad and thinks, "This is good for one thing only." How about a hammer? A hammer pounds nails. One tool, one job. An iPad is more than the sum of its parts, but Apple seems to refuse to acknowledge the typing issue, despite having sold 225 million iPads.

Why bother making something better if you don't have to?

Great point. Apple will face exactly zero pressure to deliver any sort of real keyboard solution until iPad sales falter and customers turn to alternate solutions.

Hmm. Is that happening in large enough numbers yet? No. While Apple's iPad sales saw a small decline in the last quarter, that decline likely has more to do with market saturation and iPads that have long lifespans.

What about Chromebooks in schools? Sorry, I don't think the numbers are painful to Apple. Remember, the education market represents less than 6 percent of Apple's total iPad sales, which likely were discounted below retail prices, making their contribution to Apple's bottom line less than those sold to consumers.

Does Apple Really Care About iPads in the Enterprise?

Here's the real question: If Cook truly believes that the business "opportunity is huge," as he noted in Apple's Q3 conference call with investors, is Apple willing to address the most obvious weakness of the iPad -- the lack of a great physical keyboard?

I'm not so sure. As a business tactic, if Apple can sell the iPad as a supremely mobile device that is characterized by a different sort of work, a different sort of app, then why give customers the chance to turn to an iPad for the vast majority of their job's computing requirements? Why not entice them to buy both iPads and Macs and iPhones for ultimate continuity?

If Apple really wants the enterprise opportunity to explode, the answer is simple: Sort out the keyboard problem. It is the one glaring issue that everyone can see, that anyone who has ever struggled typing on an iOS screen has experienced. Fix that, and resistance to broader enterprise -- and even school -- adoption will fade away.

So, is there hope for students and business users who occasionally need to type more than a few sentences? In the Q3 call, Cook also said that Apple felt there was "significant innovation that can be brought to the iPad and we plan on doing that."

OK then.


TechNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com. You can also connect with him on Google+.


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