It's time to revolt against tiny keyboards

Two weeks ago at Gadgetoff, a day-long conference devoted to life-changing and sometimes totally useless ideas and inventions, technology investor Gary Lauder presented an idea that captured my imagination. He spoke briefly about the history of foot binding, the practice of systematically constricting and deforming women's feet so that they would fit societal ideals. Foot binding is one of the most most extreme examples of "suffering for fashion."

Lauder then suggested that our future might include a different sort of binding: thumb binding. Right now, our opposable thumbs are just the wrong shape and size for the tiny keys on smartphones, including BlackBerries, iPhones, Palm Pres, Sidekicks and the like. But if we applied changed bandages daily the old-fashioned way, our fingers could end up in just the right shape!

This idea was obviously tongue-in-cheek — gadgets should conform to the user's hands, not the other way around. Right? Well, you wouldn't guess it from the current array of non-hand and arm-friendly keyboards I use at work and around town every day. It begs the question: Why don't we demand more ergonomic gadgets?

Are Hot Gadgets the New High Heels?

I associate the phrase "suffer for fashion" (great song, btw) with women — we don't bind our feet anymore, but we do wear high heels, even though they've been shown again and again to cause injury in the present and pain as you age. Men, it is argued, would never make such compromises just to look attractive. Their shoes are almost universally comfy.

The same cannot be said of their cellphones, PDAs, netbooks, keyboards and mice. When it comes to these gadgets, both sexes suffer the consequences for being trendy, in the form of repetitive stress injuries (RSIs), strained necks and shoulders, BlackBerry thumb and even cellphone elbow.

Fashion vs. Convenience

One might argue that we don't rely on PDAs' tiny keys because they're super cool, but because they're convenient, and that gadget makers are doing the best they can with the technology available. Tiny keyboards certainly are handy to carry around. But there are alternatives that could be just as portable and easy to use (more on this in a bit). I believe that a lot of what keeps us from adopting more comfortable, less injurious technologies is not simply convenience, but the fact that the current alternatives to tiny keys just aren't fashionabe.

Consider the lowest-hanging fruit: cellphone elbow, the pain of which I've experienced myself on occasion. Using a headset can easily prevent cellphone elbow. But headsets aren't cool. Bluetooth headsets have caught on somewhat in the suit-wearing crowd, but most of my friends wouldn't be caught dead using one even if they're comfortable (or built into your phone).

Typing is a more difficult issue. I've written most of this essay using my right hand only, because my left wrist and hand are having a painful flare-up after too much typing on crummy keyboards over too many weeks. Some QWERTY keyboards are more comfortable than others, but computers today still come standard with keyboards and mice that are terrible for our hands.

There's nothing groundbreaking or complex about ergonomic keyboard technology: It wouldn't cost companies more to make the baseline templates for both more ergonomic. Think of how much money Apple spent to design its Mighty Mouse. It's beautiful, of course, but it doesn't come close to conforming to the shape of an average human hand. In the same vein, this attractive little mouse from Microsoft may impress your friends with its looks, but your wrst may not be quite so enthusiastic. If we were begging for more and better ergonomic keyboards, companies would provide them, but as with cellphone earpieces, one major problem is that what's comfortable isn't usually what's attractive.

Another alternative to uncomfortable keyboards is to eschew typing entirely in favor of talking. Voice-recognition software is pretty great already, and it just keeps getting better — why do we use keyboards at all anymore, at least in private? Dictating to secretaries used to be expensive and inconvenient, so we've become accustomed to thinking with our fingers, but it's something we could re-learn with minimal effort. Dictating e-mails onto an iPhone in public may sound ridiculous in theory, but is it really any worse than talking on the phone to a friend? Better in-gadget dictation software would alleviate some of the damage we do to our hands while Twittering and texting.

For times when speaking out loud just isn't an option, tiny keys still aren't the only solution. laser-projection keyboards, though imperfect, are highly portable and connect to most PDAs so you can type emails on any surface. And what about good old-fashioned Palm-style writing with a stylus? It's not super fast, but then again, neither is hunting and pecking on the Palm Pre. In these days of swiping fingers and capacitive touchscreens, handwriting may be the most retro, least-trendy writing methd of all. But it does show that if companies were really driven by their customers to come up with alternatives to typing, they could.

A Shiny Future, or a Healthy One?

Gadgets are inherently kind of dorky, but it turns out there are levels of dorkiness. There's going out and getting the iPhone as soon as it hits stores (acceptably nerdy) and then there's walking around with a headset so you can dictate e-mails (unacceptably nerdy). I think we should embrace tech methods that are healthier. As we do, companies will have better incentives to develop cooler toys that don't ruin your hands. If we don't, we could well end up in an age where we distort our bodies to fit gadget fashion trends by, say, binding our thumbs to make them pointy.