Books written by Ray Sullivan

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Android Keyboard Gets the Thumbs Up

I taught myself to touch-type around 1998, maybe 1999.  I was working on defence projects and was writing specifications, reports and even found time to write up a couple of editions of an in-Service magazine named 'Riggers' World'.  To be honest, they were the only two editions ever produced, unless someone resurrected the project after I left the RAF in 2002.  If you come across a copy of either edition of that journal then please realise it is almost certainly collectible now.  I wrote 100% of the words - not that makes it particularly collectible - had it printed on high quality magazine paper by a specialist printing outfit within the Royal Air Force and distributed it to every operational station in the airforce that employed airframe technicians - Riggers in airforce slang.  It was intended to promote the technical training activities of the squadron that employed me and actually caused a bit of a buzz for a short while, then died from lack of sponsorship.  A few copies fell into my memory box, along with a set of Chief Technician epaulette slides and I guess the vast majority were recycled over a decade ago.  So due to rarity the magazines should be collectible to someone now.  Of course, the few remaining copies may actually be in the possession of the only person who wants a copy.

So I had to type a lot of words.  Bear in mind that ten years earlier I had bought my first PC at a time when the airforce actually didn't have any PCs in the workplace - I'm sure a few officers had PCs on their desks but apart from some dedicated mini-mainframe engineering databases we didn't come into contact with that kind of technology at all.  By the mid 90s the airforce started to modernise and PCs started appearing in the operational work areas and by the end of the Century I was pretty much chained to a PC and haven't seen sight of the key since.

Initially I was a two fingered typist, stabbing at the keyboard with my index fingers like Schroeder out of Peanuts, hunched over trying to push out a couple of thousand words a day on technical reports.  I started to realise that I had pretty much reached terminal velocity with two fingers, so I decided to teach myself to touch type.  I walked my keyboard down to the photocopier, pushed out a printout of it and taped it at the bottom of my monitor screen.  For a couple of months I painstakingly typed using all ten fingers and thumbs, avoiding looking at the keyboard but using the photocopy in front of me to find the right keys.  By month three I had overtaken my two fingered speed record and I've touch typed ever since.  OK, I admit it, I do look at the keyboard more than a true touch typist does, but it was certainly worthwhile learning that skill.

But the world, inexorably, continues to turn and I spend as much time using my Nexus 7 for computing - outside of work anyway - as I do with my laptop.  Now anyone who has tried typing on a tablet computer will have struggled a bit.  iPad sized tablets are just about doable, although I suspect most users perform the Schroeder style stab for most of their typing.  Touch typing on the Nexus 7 sized keyboard is not a viable proposition.

I've written a few of the blog entries on the Nexus over the last few months too, but I'll be honest - it's a slow process due to that darned keyboard.  So it was with keen interest that I learned that researchers in the UK, Germany and the US have collaborated on designing a keyboard for tablet computers.

It's been named the KALQ keyboard and is designed to be operated with the thumbs.  The name is derived from the line of letters lining the lower right-hand set of keys, much in the same way that the keyboard you use on your PC (in the UK and US at least) is called QWERTY.  In Germany it is QWERTZ because of a slightly different arrangement of the letters.

There are several competing theories about how the standard keyboard came to have the obscure arrangement we are now all used to.  The most common belief is that it was designed to optimise the typing process, putting the most used letters in the most comfortable positions while avoiding inconvenient clashes of common letters.  Another view is that the unusual arrangement was chosen to slow typists down to reduce mechanical issues with the early typewriters.  Either way, I doubt the early designers used 'computational optimisation techniques' to determine the best order of the letters.  The UK, German and US researchers, however, have and they claim they have developed a truly remarkable improvement for the tablet computing era.

The designers of the KALQ keyboard layout claim that QWERTY keyboards on tablets are really only capable ot delivering about 20 words a minute in the hands of a capable typist, but say that with training we should be able to attain speeds of 37 words a minute, admitting that this is with the assistance of an error correction algorithm.  I've seen my errors - I hope it's good.  The point is that tablet computers are going to be used increasingly in the workplace and for serious leisure use.  The ability to use them to write reports, blogs, novels and anything else you can think of is going to be a true acid test.  If we have to return to our laptops every time we want to write anything more demanding than a shopping list - and that can be challenging on a tablet - then their progress and adoption will be stymied.

The new keyboard will be available as a free download for Android devices soon, apparently. I'm keen to try it out, I tend to leave my laptop at home, but my Nexus is with me most of the time.  The ability to draft ideas for my books and to work up the next day's blog when I find myself with a few minutes to spare has to be a boon, having an intuitive keyboard optimised for tablets a force multiplier.  I may even draft a third, much belated edition of Rigger's World.  

The real limiting factor, then, will be the lack of a productive word processor for Android.  I know there are some that claim to be the real deal, but currently I'm left a little cold by what I've tried.  Perhaps the KALQ keyboard will be the tipping point - I doubt it, but here's hoping.  Maybe Microsoft will license the design for its Surface tablet so that it can be used without the clip on keyboard?

Anyway, once they launch the App I'll download it and give it a try.  Naturally there will be a learning curve - I'm up for that.  I just don't know where I'll tape the crib keyboard!


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