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Those of us who lack keyboard skills had already endured years of ridicule when tablets and smartphones worsened our difficulty by taking away the benefits of a physical set of keys. For people with "fat thumbs," is there any way to reintroduce a physical keyboard and reduce the frustration of text entry on our mobile devices?
One possible answer: the Bluetooth keyboard.
Many businesspeople who live on their mobile phones are familiar with Bluetooth. It is the facility that lets you use a wireless headset with your phone. That same Bluetooth can work with other devices as well, including mice and keyboards.
Inveterate BlackBerry users have been concerned about the potential loss of productivity they think will occur when they move from a useful-if primarily "thumb-driven"-physical keyboard to the virtual keyboards on most Android and Apple phones and tablet devices. In this column, I discuss the seeming contradiction of carrying a keyboard that essentially dwarfs even the largest emerging mobile phones.
BlackBerrys with keyboards
I was one of those inveterate BlackBerry users who defected when I heard the siren call of beautiful, large screens and an ever-expanding universe of apps. While some Android phones did have keyboards, the latest and greatest-or at least the ones with the nicest screens-did not. A colleague of mine, who has only one hand, extolled the Android phone and the ability to type on the virtual keyboard by tracing with one finger from letter to letter; the software could then make very intelligent guesses about the words you were trying to enter.
I did not fall in love with this "swiping" feature, despite various proofs that it was an efficient method of data entry. I began to wonder whether an external, physical keyboard might work with my phone, either through a USB cable or Bluetooth. I have had keyboards, built-in or additional, from my first mobile devices.
For example, many of my early Rochester Business Journal columns were drafted on a Hewlett Packard 95LX, an early palmtop computer best known for MS DOS and built-in Lotus 1-2-3; it even sported a dedicated numeric keypad. I had an external keyboard for my Palm Pilot and its successors-full-size, though it folded up into a much smaller package-and the Palm docked physically to it. Would one of the laser-driven or rubber roll-up or other keyboards advertised in the SkyMall catalog work for me?
Compromising with impracticality
No matter how many times I looked into an electronic shop offering the latest wares at airline gates, nothing worked. Regrettably, my state-of-the-art phone did not support a wireless external keyboard; I never really found out what the LG people were thinking when they explicitly made that decision. Maybe "Life's not always good"? And so I Swyped my way through a lot of typing. Swype is the author of very useful software for Android devices permitting that traced-style mechanism for input.
I spend a great deal of time in places where pulling out my computer is impractical. The tray of a regional airplane seat, for example, barely holds your seltzer water and napkin, let alone a traditional laptop computer. Yet I do a lot of work-email, drafts of articles, collection of content for presentations-on my smartphone. It was with some encouragement that I found my new phone, a Samsung Galaxy S III, does support Bluetooth pointing devices and keyboards.
Bluetooth is probably familiar to most business types with a cellphone, primarily known for letting you use an earpiece (welcome to the Borg collective) or your later-model automobile's sound system to send and receive calls without wires. You may also be aware that the same Bluetooth system lets you play music from your phone through your car's sound system. But it isn't just speaker and microphone wire that Bluetooth can replace.
Bluetooth can be used to connect many types of devices. Many cellphones, even older models, permit sharing ring tones and pictures with other phones, saving the hassle of offloading the digital media to an intermediary computer or having to swap memory cards. And, yes, mice and keyboards can also connect to your laptop or cellphone.
A keyboard for better input
Back to our situation at hand: You can find a wide variety of Bluetooth keyboards advertised in in-flight shopping publications, at the electronics boutiques that beckon during a layover at your favorite airport hub, in all the typical places. Some are generic, perhaps better for accessing a PC from across the room, such as during a presentation. Others are designed for specific environments: An Android-friendly keyboard will have keys that duplicate the functions of hard keys, such as "menu" and "back."
My tested keyboard was a Motorola device that includes a mouse much like those on Lenovo computers (sometimes likened to shoving a pencil eraser between the G, H and B keys.) It is not diminutive or designed for thumb typing. Although quite thin, it dwarfs the other dimensions of the Galaxy S III, which is not itself a small phone. However, typing with a keyboard is, in my experience, still more effective than using the on-screen keyboard and Swyping. Perhaps part of my particular situation is that so many of the terms I use are technical or are names or Web addresses, so the predictive dictionaries of the virtual keyboards simply cannot make a correct suggestion.
The variety of devices is wide-strictly numeric keypads for spreadsheet use, small devices for presentations-so you can find the optimal device for repetitive tasks.
Trade-offs of a keyboard
So I have been asked what I guess is an obvious question: If you are going to carry a keyboard at least as big as a paperback, why bother with the cellphone as the input device? Why not get a really small computer, so you get the benefits of true word processing rather than adding a complex front end to relatively simplistic email and word processing? Does it replace anything else, like a notepad, the way an iPad or tablet device might? Wouldn't the larger virtual keyboards of those more serious devices make more sense?
I was hoping to have a clearer answer for you. The keyboard will work with those tablets, should I wish to use them instead of my phone. A small laptop costs way more than a keyboard and doesn't share the instant on-off abilities of my phone. Keyboards are inexpensive; mine had a list price around $60 and was discounted to $30. I don't have to use the keyboard if I don't want to. But as long as I am using my phone to do anything substantive-not my next novel, but perhaps my short story-a keyboard reduces the frustration significantly, especially for technical content.
Eric E. Cohen, CPA, of PwC, is spending his time reinventing how accounting information is shared, with XBRL International.12/28/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.