Productivity and mobile devices

by eskokilpi

Lenovo unveiled their new tablet-capable business laptop last Monday. The company made a conscious decision not to bring out an iPad like tablet PC. They said customers don’t want it. “The feedback was that for our customers it would not work because of the need to have a physical keyboard.”

The discussion around a virtual or physical keyboard caught my attention. The purpose of a keyboard is fairly straightforward: to get words onto the recording medium. The ability to capture a symbolic representation of spoken language for storage or transfer frees information from the limits of individual memory or location. But do we need a physical keyboard for that?

The patent for the typewriter was awarded in 1868 to Christopher Sholes. An early problem of the typewriter was the jamming of the type bars when certain combinations of keys were struck in a very close sequence. As a solution to the problem, Sholes arranged his keyboard in such a way that the keys most likely to be struck in close succession were approaching the type point from opposite sides of the machine. The keyboard is actually configured to minimize speed of input. At the time, reducing the speed of the typewriter was the best way to prevent it from jamming. The QWERTY keyboard was designed to accomplish a now obsolete mechanical requirement. It can be claimed that it is very unproductive to use a keyboard as an interface to productivity tools. The situation would of course be different if we all used ten fingers and did not need to look at the keyboard as we type.

Mobile phones are still mainly associated with communication, not productivity software. As a result a knowledge worker needs two devices: a laptop and a mobile phone.

No mobile phone has created as much of a buzz as the Google Nexus One since Apple launched the iPhone. As in other Android-based mobile devices, there is no physical keyboard. Text input relies on a virtual keyboard. But there is also a voice-to-text input functionality. We could use our voice and video instead of a keyboard! And additionally the camera is paving the way towards augmented reality!

The third device category is tablets: bigger than mobile phones but smaller than laptops – and often without a physical keyboard. The critiques claim that tablets like the iPad are just laptops without keyboards, while others are really mobile phones with proper-sized keyboards, without any definition of a real market need. At least the Lenovo customers don’t want them. Hopefully the Lenovo case is not  a matter of history repeating itself, as when Ken Olsen was explaining that DEC customers didn’t want PC’s.

The question here is not only how we think about the means of input. In the corporate context, it is even more about how we think about productivity and what kind of software can be called productivity software.

Productivity is a function of interaction

Instead of thinking about productivity as if it were associated with certain types of documents, it is closer to experience to think that productivity emerges or does not, in people’s interaction with each other and in interaction with the devices we use. Productivity is a function of interaction. Interaction is the content of social media! Therefore, it may not be a very good idea to bring the old document-based productivity software to mobile phones, or use Lilliputian keyboards.

The key productivity focus should be on widening and deepening interaction and reflection. This leads to a new perspective on information-related practices and productivity tools. Rising productivity requires changes in the way we communicate. Can there be a richer and easier way to use our devices? This, by the way, is the main sales argument behind the iPad.

The fastest immediate increase in productivity comes from either learning touch typing or using voice and video as means of input. Perhaps the keyboard of the future is speech combined with transcription? Anyway, the productivity software of tomorrow needs to be interaction-based. The most efficient productivity suit of tomorrow may well be a combination of Twitter, blogs and Facebook.


Thank you Kuutti Lavonen


Mobile data