January 14, 2007

A Plea for the Fat-Fingered

My grandfather used to call them “working man hands,” friends seem to prefer “sausage fingers,” while Liz affectionately goes the heritage-sensitive route with “mozzarella sticks.” Whatever you call them, I have big hands, and consequently, big fingers. They aren’t necessarily short and stubby; the proportions are fairly usual, they are just sort of scaled-up.

Regardless, I am sure many others share my plight. Come June, I do believe I will get an iPhone. One thing that troubles me a bit is the virtual keyboard. Don’t get me wrong, the idea itself is fine, but I wonder how I might fare given the “keys” are relatively small in comparison to my fingers. When David Pogue got some hands-on time with the iPhone he notes that the keyboard is difficult to use (especially for the “fat of finger”) but the auto-suggestion while typing apparently more than makes up for it.

Apple has already showcased the way you can flip the iPhone to landscape mode to view a video or see more of a web page, but I haven’t seen anything about the potential to make use of the wider screen with the virtual keyboard. Flipping to a landscape orientation would allow for a larger, or at least more spaced out, keyboard which would likely increase typing accuracy. Is it only a matter of screen real estate?

If they did put a full querty keyboard on screen while in landscape view, that wouldn’t leave much vertical space above to view what you are actually typing. In portrait view, the keyboard takes up half of the vertical space with the rest left over for your message. Apple could change up the layout a bit on the vertical to horizontal flip, not unlike they do while viewing photos or switching to Coverflow when selecting music. I wouldn’t mind the trade-off of only seeing a few lines of what I’m typing if it meant having a larger keyboard. I spent a few minutes visually entertaining the thought of the keyboard in landscape orientation, with promising results. Apple might already have something like this in mind, but we may not know until June. Or, if we fat-fingered denizens make enough of a stink, they could always update the software later.

Commentary (35):

1. Dustin Wilson says… jan 14, 2007 | 1:41 pm

I’m rather fat fingered and I was wondering the same thing. I hope they think that, actually. I’m sure there’s people at Apple that are fat fingered. I don’t know how much I’ll like the virtual keyboard as much of my typing speed is due to the fingers knowing they hit a key by feeling it. That’s how it is for most people. I can almost tell every time I’ve made a mistake typing because I know I hit the wrong key. I find error correction to be rather annoying, actually. I’d like to see what kind of false positives it gives. I can think of plenty of names it could bring up false positives on. I won’t be using the virtual keyboard for a long period of time as I don’t text message much at all (about thrice ever since I’ve been able to).

2. Paul Malenke says… jan 14, 2007 | 1:46 pm

I think there will more than likely also be a bluetooth keyboard that will be available also. I am sure that the on-screen is great for SMS and IM’s. but if you are going to type a document, you would definitely need a external keyboard.

3. Steve Cochrane says… jan 14, 2007 | 2:11 pm

You could always use a DS stylus :)

4. Dave Simon says… jan 14, 2007 | 2:25 pm

I thought the same thing, JSM. Why not make the keyboard “landscapable.”

Maybe it is, and they just haven’t shown it. I mean, if you have one thing that you can flip, you pretty much have to have context for flipping in any scenario, right?

I could join the FFC (Fat Fingered Club), too. It all reminds me of the episode of the Simpsons when Homer finds out he can file for disability if he goes over 350 pounds or something.

He goes to dial the phone and his fingers are too fat. The operator says, “We’re sorry, but your fingers are too fat to dial. If you should need a dialing wand, mash the keypad now.”

5. Jeff Croft says… jan 14, 2007 | 2:26 pm

Good call, Jason. The landscape-mode keyboard is something I hadn’t thought of, but now that you’ve pointed it out, it seems like the obvious solution.

I’m not personally that concerned about the keyboard, as I can’t imagine that it’s worse than T9, even with its shortcomings (and, as you mentioned, that corrective/predctive text bit should make up for a lot of its deficiencies, if it works well). Still, it’d be great if there was some way to make the typing more accurate, and this seems like a great idea.

I, too, plan to get an iPhone. As I said on your pre-MacWorld post, I definitely didn’t expect Apple to go the smartphone route, but boy am I glad they did. I can’t wait to get my hands on one.

6. Richard says… jan 14, 2007 | 3:29 pm

Steve Cochrane: would a DS stylus actually work? The iPhone touchscreen works using electrical conductivity, not pressure. Does anyone know if a stylus would be an option?

7. Ian Muir says… jan 14, 2007 | 3:53 pm

The keyboard might be difficult for those of use with large fingers, but I can’t imagine it would be worse that writing “Graffiti” text on my old Palm Pilot.

8. goodwitch says… jan 14, 2007 | 4:28 pm

Jason…I’m so with you on this one. I’m counting the moments until I can have my very own iPhone…but I know the virtual keyboard will not make me happy.

I currently have a Cingular 8125 SmartPhone and I really prefer the actual keyboard. When I’m trying to do something quickly…typing on a virtual keyboard is slow and error prone…while thumbing on a real keyboard is faster and accurate.

I hope for that the next generation iPhone will add an onboard keyboard that slides out.

9. Andrew Hedges says… jan 14, 2007 | 6:24 pm

From the demos I’ve seen, it looks like the keys expand when you’re over them to make them easier to hit. I’m not too worried about it. Hopefully there’s feedback when you type, like the little clicking sound the iPod makes when you click something.

10. apetra says… jan 14, 2007 | 7:07 pm

Boy oh boy, it was discouraging to see Steve Jobs on stage single finger pocking at the vertical keyboard on the iPhone. I imagine several heads dropped in despair at that sorry moment.

As a (Danger) Sidekick user, and having used Blackberries, I add my voice to those hoping for horizontal typing on the iPhone. On these competing phones, it is indeed feasible to type long emails text messages quickly and easily. Business users absolutely do that on the “Crackberry”, and a mix of professionals and teenagers on their Sidekicks.

I can think of a handful of ways the iPhone could provide *audio* feedback that would quickly help a horizontal keyboard user development a refined sense of which key he’s typed without keeping an eye on the screen. I’d adopt a unique sound for each finger associated with proper QWERTY typing. (Go patent that, if it’s not patented by Apple already).

11. Dean says… jan 14, 2007 | 11:46 pm

Seems a stylus won’t work - see this in David Pogue’s iPhone FAQ Pt. 2:

“Will the iPhone touch surface work if you’re wearing gloves? Be unpleasant to use the phone in the dead of winter otherwise. –No, it responds ONLY to skin touch. I couldn’t use my fingernail, for example. And you certainly can’t use a stylus. (On the other hand, I doubt there’s ANY smartphone you can operate with gloves on.)”

12. Luke Dorny says… jan 15, 2007 | 2:42 am

@Dean: Uh, i think it relies on fingerprint recognition for it to work. :)

13. John Topley says… jan 15, 2007 | 4:40 am

I fully expect Apple to sell an iThimble that attaches to the end of your finger and hones it to a point that’s ideal for iPhone keyboarding!

14. Steve Williams says… jan 15, 2007 | 11:42 am

I too wondered why the iPhone doesn’t rotate to landscape to offer a larger virtual keyboard for more hardcore typing, and I offer a fix for the limited space that would be left above…

Simply use the in-built proximity sensor to detect when your hand is not directly over the screen and have the software scroll the keyboard down and out of view to reveal more of the body text.

With a little Apple flair, I’m sure it could soon feel natural to gesture your hand(s) away from the screen to preview a larger portion of the document, and crowd them again when you’re ready to carry on typing.

15. dave says… jan 15, 2007 | 11:54 am

Maybe I’m crazy but surely this new touch screen method should be easier for fat fingered people?

I mean with an actual keyboard then there are actual keys and if your finger is too big then you’re going to depress those keys by mistake as you try to home in on the one you want.

With a virtual keyboard there’s nothing to get in the way and it simply has to work out which key is closest to the centre point that you’re touching. It can’t be that hard to work out that one key is central when several are hit simultaneously.

Now maybe if you’ve got co-ordination problems then I can see how tactile feedback could help guide you in but I don’t see the problem for the fat fingered. Does Pogue have fat fingers? Did he just throw that in for comic relief?

16. Blake says… jan 15, 2007 | 1:59 pm

I smell cabbage.

17. Jones says… jan 15, 2007 | 2:14 pm

“Hopefully there’s feedback when you type”…
maybe a small electrical shock when it recognizes a keystroke?

18. Richard says… jan 15, 2007 | 3:36 pm

Dean: Cheers, it’s interesting to know, even though with the ‘expanding keys’ it should work just fine I’m sure.

Luke Dorny: Yes, especially the UK version works only by fingerprint (we do, after all live in a big brother nation over here … :-( … ).

19. Richard says… jan 15, 2007 | 3:37 pm

Dave: This is exactly the principle on which many touch screens work. I’m sure the iPhone will be no different, provided you don’t have major coordination problems (you slap yourself whenever you would like to touch the ‘Answer Call’ button).

20. fat finger Pete says… jan 15, 2007 | 5:53 pm

How about a doc-magnification keyboard. Rough example.

21. onovanDay says… jan 16, 2007 | 1:31 am

mmmm… giant man hands! you got a brother?

22. Jacko says… jan 16, 2007 | 6:44 am

As long as you’re pecking away at a tiny screen (and even though landscape orientation would be preferable) you are going to be effectively limited to one- or two-word answers to e-mails.

This cries out for the addition of a full-sized folding keyboard to allow a full sized document to be typed and then e-mailed - how many times could one then leave the laptop at home.

Or even have a separate, similar sized dedicated input device - a tablet with really good handwriting recognition (they were getting there with Newton, by the end) that could connect, via Bluetooth, with your iPhone or MacBook. Every student, schoolkid, journo, (anyone who uses a paper notebook) would then have a means of getting hastily scribbled notes, lecture notes, etc. onto a real computer for later editing.

23. apetra says… jan 16, 2007 | 8:38 am

Jacko wrote: “As long as you’re pecking away at a tiny screen (and even though landscape orientation would be preferable) you are going to be effectively limited to one- or two-word answers to e-mails.”

Are you serious?

Do you think Apple will concede that the Sidekick and BlackBerry are infinitely superior text entry devices? Is that what you heard Jobs say, piercing the reality distortion field?

I don’t think that for a minute. He claimed outright, best text entry system ever created by man. Horizontal text entry must be part of that vision, for serious users.

Although Jobs own pecking at the keys with one finger was a stunningly stupid moment — something you don’t expect from a master presenter.

24. Rachel Maxim says… jan 16, 2007 | 9:56 am

The all-touch-screen interface for the iPhone concerns me too. I just don’t think touch-screen technology is quite there, that it can be the entire interface on such a small screen, especially for typing lengthy messages. I actually have teeny fingers (just had to get my engagement ring sized down 2.5 sizes!) and I still always have problems with small touch screens…maybe it’s the nails? Anyhow, I can’t see using the iPhone without a stylus, and that really defeats the purpose. Text recognition aside, how about phone numbers? I guess they expect everyone to already have every number in their phone book.

I plan to stick with my Blackberry - (although I don’t think I’d even be able to push those buttons if I didn’t have nails) - but maybe I’ll trade in this “saucer” for a Pearl.

25. Rachel Maxim says… jan 16, 2007 | 9:57 am

…Almost forgot to mention in my previous comment - the nav system in my Honda has a touch screen keyboard and it blows, especially while you are trying to drive! Let’s hope the iPhone does better!

26. Jeff Louella says… jan 16, 2007 | 12:38 pm

First off, I would like to say that the iPhone looks amazing. I love the design, the interface, and the feel. I own a Verizon 6700 and it also has a full screen, but it offers a slide out keyboard and uses Windows Mobile 5.

Personally, I feel that there are several flaws with the iPhone. First off, there are issues using the screen with your fingers. Fingerprints will constantly cover the nice shiny screen and the user will constantly be fighting them. There will be tons of scratches and distorting marks from keys, dropping, and general use, unless you protect it in a case (adding to the size of the phone). Then there is the issue with integrating with third party software. On my phone, I have hooked up games, my Slingbox for placeshifting my cable box to my phone (I can watch onDemand from the train), watch Divx, MPG, AVI, Quicktime, Real Media movies, Surf with Digital Broadband, IM with Skype and Agile Messenger (AIM, Google, Yahoo, MSN), use Outlook that sync perfectly with exchange or and pop3 account, and open any MS Office document (word, powerpoint, excel). I can also hook in GPS mapping and many other third party devices. Apple is locking the doors to all this.

Though their phone will be a success, it may not be worth the hype. It is too expensive and too advanced for the average user, but not advanced enough, nor compatible, and still expensive for the business user. My phone was $299 brand new. The iPhone will go for $599 and offer half the features, but it sure will look good when it is all shiny and new. I cannot wait to see pictures of an iPhone after 1 year of use.

I’m not hating, I just think people are blowing this all out of the water. After a couple models, Apple will get it right and it will be awesome. For now, it has some issues.

27. Matthew D. Jordan says… jan 16, 2007 | 12:50 pm

“Gorilla Hands” is another way I’ve heard it put.

If only you could order the “magic dialing wand” from the Simpsons…

28. Erin says… jan 16, 2007 | 3:39 pm

Yeah, the landscape keyboard is the first thing on my wish list. Then increased capacity. I’ll probably make myself sit on my hands till they’ve released at least one or two iterations to get rid of the inevitable glitches, but then it Shall Be Mine.

29. apetra says… jan 17, 2007 | 5:29 pm

Widescreen, high storage capacity iPod is around the corner. No way they’ll sit on a convenient widescreen solution with WiFi, touchscreen and OS X without pairing it with a high capacity drive. I’m betting on 100GB. For less than the price of the iPhone. Heck, if they were smart, they’d bundle it with Skype and jack up the price to iPhone levels.

30. Lucian says… jan 17, 2007 | 10:35 pm

I have large hands and use a Nokia E61. The tactile feel of actually pressing keys is really important. I’m impressed that the iPhone will feature spell correction, but I can imagine it becoming a pain in the ass when you’re trying to type acronyms. It’ll keep “correcting” you when you don’t need it.

31. Ian Adams says… jan 19, 2007 | 8:24 pm

You know, there is one thing that keeps nagging me in the back of my mind: why did they bother with all that hoopla a couple years back with Inkwell? If they’re specifically snubbing the stylus with the iPhone, then why even have the technology? I can’t think of a single person I know, artist or not, who uses handwriting recognition on their computers.

32. Phillip says… jan 22, 2007 | 7:05 am

I think Apple should go one further and make a x and y proximity sensing screen. This way you could hover your finger over a key and the key would enlarge a little like the OSX taskbar (sorry I’m a windows guy). This way if the ‘selected’ or ‘hovering’ key was ‘g’ you wouldn’t by mistake press the surrounding keys even if you had farmer’s fingers.

With a key proximity sensor thing you would very easily just ‘hover’ your finger over the keys and visually ‘feel’ the key you’re searching before pressing, just like a blackberry/cellphone.

33. Kimberley says… jan 23, 2007 | 10:12 pm

Eh, I think I have quite short fingers, so to create the illusion of longer fingers, I let my nails get longish (not freakishly long, but longer than most people’s) so I think using a touch-screen keyboard would be nigh impossible. Woe!

Then again, I might be pleasantly surprised.

34. D.O. says… feb 12, 2007 | 9:37 pm

horizontal can be done, if this is accurate: http://www.myiphone.com/gallery/showimage.php?i=238&c=6

35. colin smikle says… mar 3, 2007 | 8:39 am

I have the same concern for my ‘fat fingers’…but also and more importantly concern for my ‘poor eyesight’. I hate/hate/hate handheld instruments that cause eye-strain to interface with comfortably.
Does iphone come with a flashlight? I think it’s the most useful ‘other thing’ on phones.