What it is: A virtual keyboard displays different buttons on a screen that can change based on the application you’re using.
When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, Blackberry felt confident that their smartphone lead would not be seriously challenged because Blackberry users relied on and loved the physical keyboards that crowded the bottom of every Blackberry smartphone. What Blackberry didn’t realize was that physical keyboards have serious limitations.
Besides taking up space even when they’re not needed, physical keyboards limit the options to the buttons crammed on the keyboard. Want to type foreign language characters? If those keys aren’t specifically on your keyboard, it’s clumsy to do. Want a keyboard optimized for your needs at the time? A physical keyboard has to be general enough to be useful in all types of applications, but not optimized for any one in particular.
So physical keyboards waste space and give you a non-optimized user experience.
Virtual keyboards solve these two problems by appearing on a screen. If you don’t want to use it, you can tuck a virtual keyboard safely out of sight. Depending on what you need, you can make a virtual keyboard display foreign language characters, numbers, or in Apple’s latest Swift for Playgrounds app for the iPad, common Swift coding commands that you can choose without needing to type them yourself.
A virtual keyboard can adapt to any situation and offer suggestions of the most likely words you may want to type, thereby speeding up your typing. That’s part of the reason why the iPhone wiped Blackberry out of the smartphone market because the iPhone was more versatile and the Blackberry was not.
However, the one huge advantage physical keyboards have over virtual keyboards is tactile feedback. When you press a physical key, you can feel that you’ve pressed it. When you press a key on a virtual keyboard, you may not know you’ve actually pressed it. Even worse, typing on the flat surface of a glass screen can be difficult and slow.
That’s why Apple patented a way to provide haptic feedback on virtual keyboards. If you’ve used a trackpad in a newer Macintosh, you probably don’t realize that the trackpad surface does not move. In older trackpads, you pressed down on the trackpad surface to click, but on newer trackpads, the surface never moves at all. Instead, it provides haptic feedback to give your fingers the illusion you pressed down but you really did not.
Shrink that technology down to a single key on a virtual keyboard and you can see how such haptic feedback will be able to mimic some type of physical feedback on a flat glass screen. This will make virtual keyboards much easier to use and completely wipe out the sole advantage physical keyboards maintain over virtual keyboards.
The next MacBook Pro laptop is rumored to have eliminated the top row of function keys and replaced them with a virtual keyboard that can display different types of commands based on your application. It’s only a matter of time before the entire keyboard itself becomes virtual, just like typing on an iPhone or iPad.
Apple is likely gradually introducing virtual keyboards to get people used to the idea and to perfect the haptic feedback technology needed to make virtual keyboards seem to work flawlessly like physical keyboards.
The virtual keyboard is the future and physical keyboards are not. Just ask Blackberry.