Physical vs. Virtual Keyboards on Smartphones

First there was the iPhone. And then in the frenzy of market response came the all-touch-screen BlackBerry Storm. The BlackBerry, which people love because of the scroll wheel and physical QWERTY keyboards, ditched both to compete with the iPhone.

According to Changewave, users are split on the Storm's touch screen:

Respondents were asked what they liked best and disliked most about the Storm. The results show that RIM made the right choice in producing a touch screen phone, being that it's a highly popular option in the smart phone market. One-in-two (49%) say Touch Screen Interface is what they like best about their BlackBerry Storm. Other key likes include Screen Size (46%) and Screen Resolution (43%).

At the same time, the touch screen interface represents one of the BlackBerry Storm model's biggest Achilles heel. In terms of dislikes, Lack of a QWERTY Keyboard (21%), Touch Screen Interface (20%) and Difficult to Use (20%) were top issues, along with Short Battery Life (21%).

While the Storm abandoned the keyboard, HTC's Android/G1 pointed to its physical keyboard as a differentiator vs. the iPhone's virtual version. Yet the lack of a virtual keyboard is a problem on the G1 and so one is going to be added via new software update. That will remedy the "portrait-landscape-portrait-landscape" problem wherein one has to turn the phone and flip out the keyboard to enter queries, or always surf in a landscape position. 

As an aside, I've come to prefer the virtual keyboard on my iPod Touch to the physical, slide out keyboard on my HTC WinMo 6800/Mogul. But people in general appear to be split. Accordingly, an interesting Photoshop mock-up imagines an iPhone "Elite" or "Pro" that would offer a slide out keyboard. 

While there are all sorts of rumors of an iPhone Nano and a larger iPod Touch floating around, it's unlikely that Apple will bow to the pressure and offer a physical keyboard on its iPhone. It will be interesting to see if successors to the Storm try to have it both ways and add a keyboard, while other BlackBerry models add a touchscreen. 

Of the two approaches, however, the touch screen has the momentum it would appear.