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Lots Of People Really Want Slideout-Keyboard Phones: Where Are They? 544

Posted by timothy
from the could-be-anywhere-really dept.
Bennett Haselton writes: I can't stand switching from a slideout-keyboard phone to a touchscreen phone, and my own informal online survey found a slight majority of people who prefer slideout keyboards even more than I do. Why will no carrier make them available, at any price, except occasionally as the crummiest low-end phones in the store? Bennett's been asking around, of store managers and users, and arrives at even more perplexing questions. Read on, below.

In my rant about the sucky LG Optimus phone that I got from T-Mobile, I admitted that I stuck with it anyway and let them keep my money, because I couldn't stand switching away from the slideout keyboard on the phone. Same reason that I kept the Stratosphere from Verizon for so long, despite the other features of that phone sucking too. But after failing to find even one true smartphone with a slideout keyboard after visiting the local AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile stores, I started to wonder if I was just an old fud who couldn't get with the times.

(The slideout keyboards are usually called "QWERTY keyboards" in the marketing, but I'm using "slideout keyboard" in order to distinguish them from phones like Blackberries that have a physical QWERTY keyboard and screen all on the outer surface of the phone, since that forces the keyboard and the screen to be much smaller.)

Slideout keyboards have always felt more natural to me in a couple of ways. You can let your finger or thumb center on the correct key, and then press the key in a separate action, resulting in far fewer typos then if you're required to land your fingertip on the correct spot on the screen. (Fewer typos also means you can turn off autocorrect and worry about fewer idiotic auto-corrections.) A slide-out keyboard also makes it easier to hold the phone in a relaxed grip -- with the keyboard out, you can rest the phone on your other fingers while using your thumb to keep it in place, rather than having to grip the phone around the edges with your fingers to keep the screen uncovered. The relaxed thumb-centered grip makes it much easier to tilt the phone at different angles and even hold above your head without dropping it (handy for the first texts you answer before getting out of bed), all while hardly having to tense your fingers at all.

I mentioned this to the Sprint sales guy and he shook his head and said, "Oh, no, everybody wants touchscreen phones now." When I mentioned later to the AT&T store manager that I felt I must be in a shrinking minority, he said that he preferred slide-out keyboards, most other people preferred slide-out keyboards, and the industry was just moving away from them regardless. Who was right? Skeptical as ever about people's claims that they've "heard lots of people saying so-and-so," I posted a survey on Amazon's Mechanical Turk ( which I have used in the past for all kinds of weird stuff), seeking out respondents who had used both a phone with a slideout keyboard and a phone with a virtual keyboard, and asking which one they preferred, and why.

Out of 49 respondents, 27 said they preferred slideout keyboards and 22 said they preferred virtual keyboards. And I know the Internet survey-takers weren't just clicking answers at random, because most of them gave details as to the reason for their preference (even though this was not enforced by the survey form). Obviously that's too small of a sample to be very precise about the percentage of users that prefer slide-out keyboards (apart from the fact that Mechanical Turk users are unrepresentative of the general population in several ways), but it does mean that the near-extinction of slideout-keyboard phones in retail stores is probably not in proportion to what people actually want.

You can download the raw survey data here; some of the highlights from people who said they preferred slideouts:

"I preferred using an actual keyboard because I can actually feel the keys. After my hands get used to the keyboard, I could type very fast. Using a virtual one is much harder because you don't actually feel the keys you are typing."

"I can put my fingers on the actual keys just like a typewriter and know they won't slip off and hit the wrong key. I was heartbroken when then got rid of almost all qwerty keyboards in the new phones. They are now almost impossible to find."

"The slide-out keyboard offers more accuracy and feedback than a virtual keyboard. I can easily tell if I'm pressing the wrong letter key on a physical keyboard than a virtual one. I also prefer my keyboard to be off of the screen so I can easily see what I'm typing."

"I think its easier to type on a slide out keyboard. With the virtual ones I'm always spending half the time correcting the mistakes."

"I preferred slide-out keyboards because you could actually feel the crevices that separate each letter on the keyboard, and this allowed you to type much more efficiently. There's just something more beautiful and human about physically touching something rather than using the heat in your fingers to make unreal letters type on a screen."

On the other side of the aisle, the most common reasons that people gave for preferring virtual keyboards were that slideouts were too flimsy or bulky:

"Virtual keyboards are sturdier than slide out keyboards."

"The decreased overall weight of the device due to the lack of physical keyboard is the biggest benefit to me. Plus the added benefit is that virtual keyboard technology has come a long way in the last few years and offers unique features such as swiping words whereas a physical keyboard still limits you to typing and switching between buttons and the screen in order to select or correct words."

"A virtual keyboard is faster and less cumbersome than a slide out keyboard."

"I liked the tactile feeling of the slide out keyboard. I found the keyboard slide to be more bulky however. I like the virtual keyboard because it allows me to use a larger amount of screen space on my phone when I am not typing. You can also do cool keyboard gestures with the virtual keyboard, such as sliding the finger to type. The virtual keyboard also has an auto correct feature built in which is handy. My old slide out keyboard phone was cool at the time but lacks the features modern virtual keyboard have. Also, real keyboards make clicky noises, which can prevent you from sending texts out under your desk during meetings, haha."

(That last guy's right -- I've been out of the workforce long enough that I forgot you can't get away with texting in a meeting on a slideout, unless other people in the room are covering your noise by "taking notes" typing on their laptops.)

So - not everyone wants slideout keyboards, but a lot of people really, really want them, and the stores refuse to stock them. What gives?

The AT&T store manager simply said that they were more expensive to make, and people return them more often because they break more easily. Well of course it makes sense that the extra component costs more, but it seemed counterintuitive that the slideout keyboards are usually only found on the cheapest phones in the store (which don't qualify as true smartphones). It's odd for an expensive extra component to be found only in the cheapest models of a product line, as if Ford had announced that their self-parking technology would only come bundled with the Fiesta.

More importantly, it seems strange that a more expensive or even a more fragile component, cannot be made available at any price when so many people want it. If it costs more, surely they could just charge more. I'd pay at least an extra $100-$200 for a phone with a slideout keyboard (which is more than the entire retail cost of a dumbphone with a slideout keyboard, so the price increase on a real phone should be less than that). If it makes the phone more fragile and more likely to be returned, surely that could just be reflected in a higher monthly "insurance" fee to cover the cost of exchanging damaged phones (which is only about $5 per month anyway). Is this another example of market failure, even in a competitive industry? It's easy for Facebook to force changes down our throats, since we have nowhere else to go, but how did Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint all end up abandoning such a sizable portion of their customers, even while locked in a cutthroat battle with each other?

Maybe this can be the next big thing that T-Mobile does to differentiate themselves from everybody else (like when they broke ranks and decided to sell all phones at retail price with no long-term contracts) -- everybody knows their network is spottier, but it's usable, and if they're doing one thing right that you really care about, and everyone else is doing it wrong, that's reason enough to switch. Their pink-shirted CEO certainly likes making waves with his colorful metaphors about the other carriers screwing you over. If T-Mobile sold me a real phone with a slideout keyboard, I'm sure I'd stay with them for years, even though yesterday the rain (a fairly common phenomenon here in Bellevue, where T-Mobile U.S. is headquartered) caused the reception on the phone to go from 4G to 2G and then down to "G," which I didn't even know was a thing.

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Lots Of People Really Want Slideout-Keyboard Phones: Where Are They?

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  • COST (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 28, 2014 @01:30PM (#47551605)

    It's about cost really. It's cheaper to manufacture phones without a physical keyboard. Less parts = higher margin for the phone vendor. It's the same reason they are wanting gesture control in cars. Less buttons = cheaper product. Welcome to the future where usability is secondary to how much money can be made and the vendors can convince users that's really what they want in the first place.

  • NO, all candy bar (Score:5, Insightful)

    by brxndxn (461473) on Monday July 28, 2014 @01:31PM (#47551615)

    The big manufacturers are all too busy competing with Apple to actually notice there might be a market for something else.. For example, I want a Motorola Razr running Android. I don't care if it's slower, worse resolution, smaller screen than todays' big fat candy bar phones. I'm a guy and I don't carry a bag. The phone has got to fit in my pocket.

  • by Himmy32 (650060) on Monday July 28, 2014 @01:35PM (#47551673)
    This week in the exciting adventures of what irks Bennett.... cellphone keyboards.

    Tune in next week for yet another complaint about something that no one cares about.
  • by argStyopa (232550) on Monday July 28, 2014 @01:41PM (#47551761) Journal

    Who the hell is this guy sleeping with, that Slashdot has become his personal blog-pimp site? (Rhetorical question, it's clearly timothy, soulskill, and samzenpus....do you guys know about each other?)

    Seriously? If his points were insightful, it might just BARELY be acceptable (but still, not really - did we want this to become the 21st century's Chaos Manor column?)...but I have to say, they aren't. I was going just refute as an example a few of his issues, but they're so fucking obvious, what's the point?

    Bennett, I'm not going to educate you basic premises of business, marketing, anecdotal evidence, etc. Seriously, talking about the goddamn WEATHER?

    What.
    The.
    Fuck,
    Slashdot?

  • by Ereth (194013) on Monday July 28, 2014 @01:44PM (#47551795) Homepage

    I thought that the reason physical keyboards were going away was obvious... with a software keyboard you can make one part and sell it in every country in the world. The software keyboard is infinitely flexible and can be changed to represent any language. A physical keyboard can't, and so a phone manufacturer has to make a different physical keyboard for each market, complicating inventory management and increasing price overall since they can't amortize chinese keyboards with US phones.

    The cost of giving it to you isn't the cost of making it for you, it's the cost of not being able to sell your phone in all the other countries, and THAT is the truly "high" cost that you can't afford to pay to get them to make one for you.

  • Re:Just get a case (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pecosdave (536896) on Monday July 28, 2014 @01:44PM (#47551799) Homepage Journal

    I like Swift Key, but it's not the answer to everything. For instance I couldn't even type in a user name in Plants Vs. Zombies while it was active, the built in email program on my phone is nearly impossible to use with Swift key - it moves the cursor in an unpredictable manner, and it still isn't a "real" keyboard. While I hope those software issues are alleviated for Swiftkey, there isn't a modern phone around that even compares to my more than 10 years ago Motorola T900 [arch.com] pager.

    A case isn't always a good answer either, most of those use Bluetooth to communicate with a phone and I know people who've demonstrated hooking Wireshark up to Bluetooth and capturing every letter typed on a keyboard they weren't even paired with.

  • Opportunity Cost (Score:4, Insightful)

    by timmyf2371 (586051) on Monday July 28, 2014 @01:51PM (#47551873)

    You don't tell us the question you asked your survey respondents so I'm making the assumption that you asked a simple question to see if people prefer a slideout or virtual keyboard. It would have been more interesting to ask users if they would still prefer a slideout keyboard at the expense of extra thickness and cost when compared to the non-slideout model.

    Back in the day, I loved my Nokia N97's slideout keyboard; it was one of the best mobile keyboards I've had the pleasure to use. But I wouldn't want to swap the thickness of my current phone for a qwerty - it's just too much of a tradeoff.

  • by AmiMoJo (196126) * <mojo@NOspAm.world3.net> on Monday July 28, 2014 @01:55PM (#47551917) Homepage

    Keyboard phones didn't sell well. People realised that swipe keyboards are actually faster than trying to type on tiny keys. Most people don't do massive amounts of typing on their phones anyway. Of they need to they get a tablet, Bluetooth keyboard or ultra portable laptop.

    Keyboard phones sound good on paper but when people actually tried them the reality hit home.

  • by myrdos2 (989497) on Monday July 28, 2014 @01:59PM (#47551987)
    His sample size isn't necessary too small - I've seen plenty of papers with statistical significance at 12 to 20 participants. No, his problem is more likely self-selection bias. That is, people who are frustrated with the lack of slide-out phones may be much more likely to respond to the survey.
  • by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday July 28, 2014 @02:08PM (#47552071) Journal

    I suspect they're not producing these kinds of phones simply because, despite the author's assertion, very few people actually do want such phones.

    A writer and a submitter does not constitute some vast ignored market.

  • by cshay (79326) on Monday July 28, 2014 @02:14PM (#47552171)

    It's not that there is "no market", it is that the "power user" slice of the pie (people who compose a lot of emails) has a tiny percentage now that smartphones are in every single household.

    One of the sad consequences of technology going mainstream. The power users can be ignored.

  • by Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) on Monday July 28, 2014 @02:20PM (#47552241)

    Honestly if you're using the phone for significant amounts of typing anyway you're doing it wrong.

  • Re:COST (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Monday July 28, 2014 @02:26PM (#47552289)

    It's about cost really. It's cheaper to manufacture phones without a physical keyboard. Less parts = higher margin for the phone vendor. It's the same reason they are wanting gesture control in cars. Less buttons = cheaper product. Welcome to the future where usability is secondary to how much money can be made and the vendors can convince users that's really what they want in the first place.

    The cost calculation extends beyond manufacturing. I imagine the switch to virtual input devices also allow more reliability as there are fewer moving/separate parts. In addition, the touch/gesture interface can be re-programmed, updated and "enhanced" (said in quotes as I personally find that most enhancements are not) more readily than fixed physical interfaces.

  • Re:COST (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 28, 2014 @02:27PM (#47552311)

    I doubt a physical keyboard costs more than a touch screen.

  • Re:Wrong device (Score:4, Insightful)

    by war4peace (1628283) on Monday July 28, 2014 @02:36PM (#47552389)

    Maybe it's the other way around. Maybe the phone is not a text input device because it sucks at doing the job right.
    Screen size is big enough. Capacity is more than big enough. There's plenty a reason to type on your phone. I, for example would love to do that while I take a longer ride in an intercity bus or car (as a passenger, don't get any ideas), or even while traveling by train (I'm a failed writer of sorts). I tried writing by hand in a paper notebook, but my scribbles look awful because I'm in a moving vehicle which constantly exerts forces (small but not negligible) so writing by hand becomes difficult.
    For the classic writing style I need a hard place to put my notebook on, stability and a comfortable position, none of which are available while traveling. But a phone would do the job a lot better. "Get a laptop" you'd say, but with bigger size, smaller battery life span and no good place to put it on (except own lap) it's still worse than a phone.
    Bluetooth keyboards are worse than a slide-out keyboard because they're not attached to the phone and eat up battery.

    Another reason is IM conversations while traveling. They don't bother other passengers like talking on the phone does, you can do it with multiple people at once, doesn't really eat up bandwidth.

    Yes, a cheap phone would do just fine but then I'd have to carry two devices which makes no sense.
    I understand this particular case doesn't represent "a market" but there might be a market if such a device existed.

    About cost: I guess the extra cost would be negated if companies would simply stop spending time and money creating all that stupid bloatware they push on the damn phones.

  • by erice (13380) on Monday July 28, 2014 @02:48PM (#47552497) Homepage

    I suspect they're not producing these kinds of phones simply because, despite the author's assertion, very few people actually do want such phones.

    A writer and a submitter does not constitute some vast ignored market.

    On the contrary, I'm pretty sure there are a lot of people who want keyboards. However, they will buy a new phone anyway, even if there is nothing available with a keyboard so the manufacturers have little incentive to cater to them. The same is true for small smart phones. Almost certainly more people want a small phone than want a slide out keyboard and they still get ignored. Manufacturers get more marketing buzz by pumping out giant keyboardless phones frequently than they would if they slowed down the upgrade cycle to spread their development efforts across niches.

    When people stop buying new phones because manufacturers are not giving them what they want then maybe we will see some changes. My phone is 3.5 years old because I can't find a suitable (i.e., modern and not huge) replacement but I don't think there are enough people like me yet to catch the attention of the manufacturers.

  • Re:COST (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MouseR (3264) on Monday July 28, 2014 @02:48PM (#47552501) Homepage

    Internationalisation is also a huge issue for hardware keyboard.

    Aka, get out of ASCII territory and all hardware keyboard suck raw pigeon farts.

    Localized keyboards create inventory and distribution hell.

  • Re:Just get a case (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anubis IV (1279820) on Monday July 28, 2014 @03:17PM (#47552725)

    Indeed. When the market doesn't suit your niche, get a peripheral that does the trick. And I say "niche", because Bennett failed to take note of some rather obvious selection bias that, when taken into account, seems to cause his results to actually suggest the opposite of what he's claiming.

    Namely, slide-out keyboards have never been ubiquitous across a class of phone in the way that touchscreen keyboards are nearly ubiquitous across smartphones today. So while nearly everyone using a smartphone today has been forced to use a touchscreen at some point, users who have used slide-out keyboards did so because they specifically chose that style of keyboard, given that there were plenty of comparable alternatives available back when slide-out keyboards were more common.

    Which is to say, rather than being a random sampling, the respondents to this survey were likely all people who had a strong preference for slide-out style keyboards at some point in time. That only a hair more than half of the people who preferentially chose them in the past still prefer them just a few years later is actually rather damning evidence against slide-out keyboards.

    More or less, Bennett has failed to take into account people who considered slide-out keyboards and chose not to buy them for any one of a number of valid reasons that do not require having used them (e.g. makes the phone thicker, can't switch between alphabets/character sets, don't want to add more mechanical points of failure, etc.). I don't think he did it intentionally, but the outcome is that he's loaded the deck in his favor, yet still only barely managed to get the results he wanted.

That does not compute.

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