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The vast majority of smartphones sold today use a 'bar' or 'slate' form-factor, with a large screen which uses an on-screen keyboard.

Blackberry are the one obvious manufacturer who still produce smartphones with physical keyboards, but their market share has declined from around 20% 6-7 years ago to around 0.2% now.

iPhones have never had a physical keyboard, and there are only a few examples of Android phones being produced today that have a physical keyboard.

What caused this decline in the use of physical keyboards?

(More interestingly) What is the impact on the UX of mobile devices?

EDIT: Interestingly there are also a few examples of physical keyboard accessories which can be added to iPhones, like the Typo (RIP) and the Boxwave Keyboard Buddy which adds a Sidekick-like keyboard.

This also includes the slider form factor where there is a full size screen, plus a keyboard which slides out like the Blackberry PRIV. enter image description here

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    @Tbolt you mean Apples to Apples (being the first to implement multi-touch on a consumer product)? – maxathousand May 4 '16 at 18:39
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    THe answer is simple - -because most people don't want them. – SnakeDoc May 4 '16 at 20:49
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    The answer is simple, but not what @SnakeDoc proposed: Apple implemented it because they've been oversimplifying interfaces for decades, and then the major Android players copied their mistakes as well as the things they got right. Most of the criticisms of real keyboards in the answers below do not apply to slide-out keyboards (aka practically all of them!) and there are some serious disadvantages to on-screen keyboards to consider, such as the lack of tactile feedback. If I wanted to type on an on-screen keyboard that obscures my screen, I'd get an iPhone.. – Mason Wheeler May 4 '16 at 21:22
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    @MasonWheeler That's fair, but also recognize physical keyboards are not really desirable for lots of reasons. They make the phone bigger/thicker/heavier for starters, the buttons are never great (too small, no way to adjust size), can't adjust characters on the keyboard for whatever reasons (different languages, special characters, domain specific keyboards such as mathematics, etc), they wear out quicker because it's a little mechanical switch underneath, can't silence keyboard tapping sounds, can't see in the dark and/or the backlight isn't great and/or can break, etc... – SnakeDoc May 4 '16 at 21:27
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    @MasonWheeler You're kidding yourself if you think a slide-out keyboard phone can be as thin as <pick-any-flagship-phone>. It's literally an entire separate PCB, with plastic surrounding it. For button size changes, at least in Android, most keyboards have settings which allow for button size changes, spacing changes, etc. Special characters being handled in software is a bad UX when you have a physical keyboard (it's tedious, to say the least). For a software keybaord, it's usually a long hold on the button to see more options. That's more "fluid". Backlighting is an issue, if not for you. – SnakeDoc May 4 '16 at 21:41

11 Answers 11

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While space is an obvious part of the equation, it's not the main one, you could simply have a sliding physical keyboard just as previous generations of smartphones and be a happy camper. However, physical keyboards had several issues:

  • smaller keys than on-screen keys
  • structural weakness
  • short lifetime (the flex connector and pieces of sliding keyboards had a very short duration span, usually around 18 months)

On the other hand, on-screen keyboards have bigger keys, they don't add an additional component that can break and its lifetime span will be as long as you can take care of the phone, or technological advances make it obsolete.

However, as said, this is not the main reason, just an important one to justify something way more important:

Design Philosophy

The design philosophy used for smartphones and touch screen devices is that the user needs to jump between dimensions as little as possible. A physical phone is a dimension, everything inside it is another.

Let's say: a mechanical and a logical/software dimension. The idea is that users are immersed inside this dimension. You can read Apple design principles in general, but you might be interested in this part at iOS Human Interface Guidelines : Design Principles:

Direct Manipulation

When people directly manipulate onscreen objects instead of using separate controls to manipulate them, they're more engaged with their task and it’s easier for them to understand the results of their actions.

enter image description here

Using the Multi-Touch interface, people can pinch to directly expand or contract an image or content area. And in a game, players move and interact directly with onscreen objects—for example, a game might display a combination lock that users can spin to open.

In an iOS app, people experience direct manipulation when they:

  • Rotate or otherwise move the device to affect onscreen objects

  • Use gestures to manipulate onscreen objects

  • Can see that their actions have immediate, visible results

Additionally, this philosophy is related to a marketing plan where each additional feature, peripheral or physical device that is not strictly necessary for the basic functioning of the main device, is not included by default. Thus, if you want a keyboard, you can buy it. If you want a DVD recorder for your laptop, go and buy it. If you want a productivity app that always came by default, now you have to buy it. This is a huge marketing move for Apple which was quite criticized, yet they're going deep into this move and there are no signs they plan to give up any time soon

In short

This decision is based on a philosophy rather than a technical choice, and it has been highly studied and tested

Additional Reading

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    I'm not quite sure that's an accurate description of Apple's philosophy. For example, the productivity apps you mention (Pages, Keynote, Numbers) are free with any Mac or iOS device purchased in the last several years. I'd say a better description is that Apple does not compromise the physical form factor of its hardware to add features they consider unnecessary. Features like physical keyboards on the iPhone or DVD recorders on laptops require design trade-offs to accommodate them (moving parts, thicker cases, etc...). – Zach Lipton May 5 '16 at 1:18
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    18 months? The physical slide-out full qwerty keyboard on my N900 is still the only physical thing that does work after 6 years :) And it is still by far my favourite smart phone form factor. The USB plug broke and I could only charge it with a uinversal battery charger, and the touch screen doesn't register all presses anymore. Which is why I replaced it. – Juha Untinen May 5 '16 at 1:51
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    @jamesqf: They have thought about it. Since the very beginning - the original iPhone (no version number). iPhones are among the most popular tech devices among blind people. See: apple.com/my/accessibility/ios/#vision – slebetman May 5 '16 at 5:24
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    "When people directly manipulate onscreen objects ... they're more engaged with their task and it’s easier for them to understand the results of their actions. " - When people directly manipulate onscreen objects, they have trouble seeing what they're manipulating because their hand is in the way. – immibis May 5 '16 at 6:03
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    The "Direct Manipulation" philosophy seems completely unrelated to this. Typing is always indirect, be it on a physical keyboard or on a touch keyboard. You press a button and the letter appears somewhere else. – mastov May 6 '16 at 7:13
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What caused this decline in the use of physical keyboards?

The iPhone

What is the impact on the UX of mobile devices?

This is a pretty deep question and is tough to answer objectively.

I would argue that dropping the physical keyboard was a net gain. That the benefits it brought far outweighed the usefulness of the physical keyboard. As others have mentioned, smartphones are used for many things that don't require typing, and not having the physical keyboard taking screen real-estate provides a better experience for those things.

On-screen keyboard advantages:

  • Multi-language. Buy a physical-keyboard-phone and you get the localization of that device. On-screen keyboards can be flexible to many locals.
  • Multi-keyboard. We're seeing an evolution of the keyboard itself from standard qwerty to gif-keyboards, swype-keyboards, emoji-keyboards, and more.
  • Less pocket-typing. One could argue that the keyboard buttons could be detrimental in the event that you are waking the phone while in your pocket. Or ultimately doing unwanted tasks while completely unaware (note: this is still an issue with slab smartphones as well, just less-so)

Some cases where physical keyboard is an advantage:

  • Higher accuracy is more easily attainable
  • Generally faster input
  • Easier to use while hands are moist
  • Easier to use without looking

Update: For posterity, I have updated the list to only include examples that are explicit to keyboard-vs-non-keyboard, and included some from the comments.

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    While obviously part of the big picture, none of your points apply if I have a sliding keyboard or a clam shell phone – Devin May 4 '16 at 18:31
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    Another major disadvantage to touch-screen only interfaces is that it's pretty much impossible to use without looking at it. This is alleviated somewhat by voice recognition, but that's still not the most reliable technology yet, especially with any amount of background noise. This results in an increased safety issue, as people trying to manipulate a smart phone while driving are much more likely to cause accidents. With physical keys, it's much easier to dial a number blind. Which of course brings up the other obvious issue of people who actually ARE blind or visually impaired... – Darrel Hoffman May 4 '16 at 18:41
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    Could you expand on your first point about the iPhone? – Midas May 4 '16 at 20:40
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    It may be difficult to understand today what enormous impact the iPhone had on the mobile phone industry and its users, and how desirable a product it was. Before that all phones had physical number pads or - if lucky - keyboards. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen May 5 '16 at 11:51
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    I don't buy the point about the iPhone causing the disappearance of the physical keyboard. Tron was released in 1982 and featured a very prominent screen based keyboard. – Andrew Martin May 6 '16 at 7:42
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The main reason is versatility. A keyboard in software can be easily adapted to different layouts, different character/symbol sets and different cultures. In addition, custom keyboards such as Swype or Word Flow are then feasible.

Physical keyboards add to the physical complexity of the device, have to be revealed (deployed) to be usable and are more expensive to include.

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    This is a really important point. iOS supports roughly 31 languages right now, and some languages have multiple keyboard layouts. They range from the classic US English layout to Cyrillic script to drawing CJK characters with your finger (not to mention third-party keyboards from Swype to gif keyboards). A software keyboard allows Apple to sell the same physical hardware around the world (occasionally with slightly different models to accommodate different cellular standards), while a physical keyboard poses far bigger internationalization challenges. – Zach Lipton May 5 '16 at 1:26
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    On my phone, I can press a button to toggle between English and Spanish on the fly. With a physical keyboard, how would you add or remove the Ñ key? – thunderblaster May 6 '16 at 13:25
  • Yep - context sensitivity is key - eg, click a numeric only field, and get big numberpad, click an email address field and get a .com key. it all enhances the speed and ease of use, which is the most important fact for UX. – SeanR May 9 '16 at 9:45
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    +1. The two most upvoted answers are made by people who forgot (never knew?) english is not the only language in the world! It's so practical to be able to switch layouts (and for decent keyboards app, change the current dictionary based on the selected layout). – Shautieh May 9 '16 at 10:19
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A keyboard has obvious costs:

  • Increased device size.
  • Reduced space for a screen.
  • Mechanical complexity/manufacturing costs.
  • The need to localize the keyboard to different languages.

On the other hand, the main benefit of a keyboard was easier data entry. At one point, a keyboard was worth it despite the costs, for this reason, because touch screens were not accurate enough for a keyboard on a phone-sized device to be workable. However, improvements in touch screen technology have greatly reduced or eliminated the advantages of a physical keyboard.

I can't find a good reference on touchscreen improvement, but anecdotally: in the late 90's a desktop monitor-sized touchscreen I used as a cashier was annoyingly inaccurate, despite buttons much larger than a finger. In the mid-2000s, I worked a lot with Palm devices, and their touch screen was nowhere near as good as a modern phone. It just would not have been possible to use a touch keyboard on such a device.

  • can you be more specific on the improvements? is typing accuracy the only one? – Midas May 4 '16 at 16:58
  • Exactly. There is a reason those phones with the slide out keyboard don't exist anymore. – Broots Waymb May 4 '16 at 17:30
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    Not to mention that the size of the physical keyboards on phones really don't afford (or if they do, it's marginal) easier data entry. – TMN May 4 '16 at 18:17
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    This: "Mechanical complexity/manufacturing costs". Like most [cheaper] domestic appliances have lost mechanical buttons - sensors (touch areas) are cheaper to produce. – Arvo May 9 '16 at 9:58
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Most probably because of 2 trends in the smartphone industry.

  1. Phones get thinner and thinner, and losing a physical keyboard makes a phone a lot less thick.

  2. Screens on phones kept getting bigger, and started using touchscreen. The combination of these gave to option to type on your screen by tabbing a "digital" keyboard.

The downside to this though, is that you can't really create muscle memory with a touchscreen keyboard, because the surface is flat. You can however get muscle memory using a physical keyboard, making it easier to type over time.

  • so effectively customer preference for bigger screens and thinner phones meant that it was inevitable? – Midas May 4 '16 at 16:57
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    I would think of it as " it became a viable solution" rather than "it was inevitable". – MJB May 4 '16 at 16:59
  • I think your #1 is a case of reversing cause and effect. – jamesqf May 5 '16 at 17:29
  • @jamesqf, I don't think so. There is an obvious pressure to make phones smaller and lighter for convenience. – user31143 May 9 '16 at 10:49
  • @dan1111: If that is so, then why are most current "phones" larger and heavier than my phone with a keyboard? – jamesqf May 14 '16 at 5:08
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In the past people used to use cellphones mainly to talk and text only, nowadays people doesn't use smartphones JUST for that, so you don't need to use the keyboard all the time but just on demand which allows to place a bigger screen to offer an overall better experience without losing any functionality.

It's a cost benefit adaptation, you can emulate a physical keyboard (and many more tools) on a touch screen but you can't emulate a touch screen on physical keyboard.

Also an on-screen keyboard allows additional interaction possibilities like swipe typing.

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    But there are a good number of people - I'm one - who do use phones just to talk and text. And who need to be able to physically feel keys in order to use them. – jamesqf May 5 '16 at 17:31
  • I'm not sure about the numbers, do you know some statistics? btw "And who need to be able to physically feel keys in order to use them" Why? – Alejandro Veltri May 5 '16 at 20:34
  • Some people can't see an on-screen keyboard. Others work by touch (tactile memory, you know), so while we might be able to struggle with such a keyboard, it's much slower. And finally, some people's fingertips are too big to hit just one key on a phone-sized keyboard. With a physical keyboard, you can use fingernails, but that doesn't work with the usual capacitance-type touch screen. – jamesqf May 7 '16 at 4:31
  • I sure do miss my Helio Ocean's slide-out keyboards. It was a chubby device, but I really didn't think it was too big. That form-factor with Android would be fantastic. – Rob Starling May 8 '16 at 18:03
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This is actually a really good example of Darwinian evolution in action:

The natural analog might be something like a flight-capable wing on an ostrich: The natural habitat for ostriches favours running for a bird of that size. A large wing would only cause drag and use energy and nutrients that would be better spent on powerful legs - many thousands of years ago, the ostriches with powerful legs prospered in the running-biased environment while the ones with large wings died out through being caught by predators due to their inability to run as fast or for as long as their leggy friends. As most of them probably died young, the gene for large wings simply didn't get passed on.

The physical keyboard has only very limited advantages over its on-screen cousin but these advantages come at a great cost. Physical keyboards may give better positive feedback but they are also complex and expensive to make, bulky, and consume more energy (assuming they are backlit).

In a market where users want thinner, cheaper phones with longer lasting batteries, phones with physical keyboards end up too bulky, expensive and drain their batteries too quickly to keep their user happy. So they simply don't sell as well as non-physical keyboard phones.

As they don't sell, manufacturers stop making them - They die out as evolution favours a different format.

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    The idea that there were simultaneously some ostriches with huge legs and some with huge wings is a serious misunderstanding of evolution. – David Richerby May 7 '16 at 16:49
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    It's not a misunderstanding. It is a (huge) simplification for a non specialist audience. – Andrew Martin May 7 '16 at 18:33
  • It's not a simplification: it's just wrong. And this is exactly the sort of distorted version of evolution that creationists like to knock down as "proof" that evolution is false. The more we help people think that evolution really is like this, the easier it is for the creationists to argue against it. – David Richerby May 7 '16 at 19:54
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    Do you seriously want to turn this into a politico-religious discussion? I think that's beyond the remit of this board. It IS a simplification in that genetic variation would have produced subtle differences in wing shape and size as well as leg shape and size (along with a myriad other changes). Those ostriches with better legs would have been able to outrun their slightly weaker-legged friends. Like the old joke: "I don't need to be able to outrun the bear I just need to be able to outrun you". Do I really need to explain this here? – Andrew Martin May 8 '16 at 1:07
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The reason why apple specifically veered away from a physical keyboard was because of this question:

"If I don't want a keyboard, why do I need to have one present?"

This truly speaks to the idea that simplicity is key.

A use case: I'm watching a video - I don't need a keyboard, infact, I need more screen space.

But when it does come down to writing something or even searching, my flow has changed, it now turns to: I need my keyboard, screen space isn't as important here.

Impact here has gotten better for mobile. You have to realize that the mobile pattern is showing less (and the most valuable) information is critical. You can't jam all the information you want just because. Apple's approach made it true to that thought, that now you only get what you need when you need it.

So in essence you're not throwing in the whole kitchen sink.

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It can be that physical keyboards will come back some day. Of course, they make phones more bulky etc., but virtual keyboards are extremely bad for fast typing and ESPECIALLY in many languages other than English. For example, in Russian every noun or adjective can have tens of different endings. Virtual keyboard dictionaries are not capable of predicting when typing long Russian words and it is really a disaster.

Example: you are typing a typical Russian adjective (12 letters) in the (say) repositional case and you made just one typo in the beginning of your long adjective and now when you are towards the end, you cannot fix your typo, because the keyboard proposes you other forms of your adjective (because in Russian there are 6 cases for single and 6 for plural and all these 12 guesses (each 12 letters long) cannot be shown on the virtual keyboard screen (and in fact are never shown on any virtual Russian keyboard).

Jumping to the wrong letter in your word with virtual keyboard is very problematic. And as far as Russian words are so long, not just one, but two-three wrongly typed letter per word - is a usual case. So when typing in Russian on a virtual keyboard you must be VERY slow and VERY attentive.

Virtual keyboards are good for English, because English words do not have cases and are considerably shorter than in many other languages.

Maybe in the future some company will develop physical keyboard on the back side of the phone. When you type on such keyboard, you will see virtual keyboard on your screen (same way as now), but you will feel the keys with your fingers.

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I will add one additional item that the other answers have not hit on is that Blackberry has a multitude of patents covering physical keyboards making it extremely difficult to not infringe on their IP.

Here are some examples-

Hand-held electronic device with a keyboard optimized for use with the thumbs

Ramped-key keyboard for a handheld mobile communication device

  • Yet I have a perfectly good dumb phone with a physical keyboard. – jamesqf May 5 '16 at 17:32
0

I think it's because of the way we use our rectangles. Although not sure, I would be willing to bet that most of the time we are not typing on our devices. By not having a dedicated physical keyboard, we can repurpose different parts of the screen depending on the context of use at any given moment.

This would also reduce points of failure on a device, since your screen either works or it doesn't, as opposed to a screen and 30+ keys that may individually break down, reducing the utility of your device.

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