Input in the Next Wave

In response mostly to my own comentary of the iPad I'd like to lead a collective brainstorming of input and computer interact modalities in "the next wave."

What's the next wave? That thing that's always coming "soon," but isn't quite here yet, the thing that we are starting to see glimpses of, but don't really know. Accepting for a moment that things like Blackberries, netbooks, Kindles, iPads, iPhones and the like are these "harbingers" of the next wave.

The "make or break" feature of all these new and shiny things is the input method: how we get stuff from our heads into a format that a computer can do something with. While I'm a particularly... textual sort of guy, the "input question," is something everyone who uses technology will eventually come to care about. Blackberry's sell because they speak "messaging," and because most of them have hardware keyboards. The iPad, with its bigger onscreen keyboard and external keyboard dock, is--to my mind--an admission that the little onscreen keyboard of the iPhone doesn't work if you want enter more than 50 or 60 characters at any given time.

I love a good hardware keyboard. A lot, and I'm not just talking about the kind on the blackberry, but a real keyboard. The truth is I can't even quite bring myself to justify one of the little "netbooks" on the principal that everything I do involves massive amounts of typing. And fundamentally, at the moment there doesn't seem to be a good replacement for getting data into a computer system, that doesn't involve a keyboard. Clearly this can't hold out forever, and so I'd like to pose two questions:

  1. What kind of computer interfaces will replace the command line?

So in 2010 most people interact with their computers by way of the mouse and a lot of pretty pictures. Even mobile environments like the iPhone/iPad/etc. and the Blackberry have some sort of a pointer that the user has to manipulate.

But the truth is that this kind of modality has always been inefficient: switching between the mouse and the keyboard is the greatest time sink in current user interfaces. Graphical environments require increasingly sophisticated graphics hardware, they require users to memorize interfaces in a visual way that may not be intuitive (even if we're accustomed,) and they have incredibly high development costs relative to other kinds of software. Furthermore, most of us use a lot of text-based interfaces weather we know it or not. Google is a command line interface, as are most web browser's address bars. And although my coworkers and I are hardly typical, we all have a handful of terminals open at any given time.

Clearly shells, (e.g. bash, zsh, and the like) are not going to be around forever, but I think they're going to be around until we find some sort of solution that can viably replace the traditional shell. We need computer interfaces that are largely textual, keyboard driven, powerful, modern, lightweight, fast, and designed to be used interactively. I'm not sure what it looks like, but I know that it needs to exist.

  1. What kind of interfaces will replace the keyboard for data entry?

When I was writing the iPad reflection, I thought it might be cool to have an input device that was mostly on the back of the device, so that you hold the device in both hands, your fingers make contact with some sort of sensors on the back, with your thumbs touching something on the front, and there's some sort of on-screen interface that provides feedback to make up for the fact that you can't see "the keys."

I'd be inclined to think that this would be QWERTY derived, but that's as much a habit as it is anything. I'm a pretty good touch typist, not perfect, and not the fastest, but I don't have to think at all about typing it just happens. But I don't know or think that the QWERTY keyboard is going to be the interface modality of the future. While I do want to learn DVORAK typing--but haven't managed to really feel inspired enough to do that--I think its more productive to think about replacements for the keyboard itself rather than alternate layouts.


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