Time to move on from punched cards and keyboards

When computers were first created, all attention was centred on getting answers to complex calculations that could not be solved directly by mathematics. Calculus was everything and getting data into the systems was achieved via the use of cards punched with holes. We have moved on someway since then, but there have been only limited developments in how computers are controlled and the ways in which users can enter data.

Since the days of punch cards the humble keyboard has become the main instrument by which users interact with computer systems.  Until recently the keyboard has been an obligatory component of every personal computer. Around twenty years ago the keyboard gained an accomplice in the shape of the now nearly ubiquitous mouse, but the keyboard maintained its role as the primary means of imputing text and data into programmes.

Certainly the IT industry has brought forward a few more options during the last two decades, but none displaced the keyboard from the majority of mainstream usage. For example, back in the early nineties I remember very clearly investigating programs that sought to allow a person to dictate to their PC via a microphone. At the time the voice recognition capabilities were quite simplistic and required the user to spend a number of hours to "train" them to their accent. More importantly, the vast majority of desktop PCs of the time lacked the compute power to allow the voice recognition software to function adequately.

I also recall that many 'influential' staff members were not prepared to work with the new tools, even if they had functioned acceptably. Business managers did not want to give up their secretaries and, even more unforgettably a number of senior secretaries pro-actively advised me that the introduction of such systems were unlikely to deliver business benefits. There are times, few though they may be, when the advice of users should not be ignored, and that was one of them. 

But today we can see evidence of new options that hold the potential to change the way data is entered at a fundamental level and for large communities of users. Already you can see people using devices without physical keyboards. On some machines it is now possible for simple voice commands to be given to machine to ask for information or to add data. The Siri software found on Apple's devices is a good example whilst the Dragon dictation software is now very effective at converting audio to text, as long as you remember to speak the punctuation desired.

Beyond this the widespread use of Tablets and Smartphones has made entire generations comfortable 'typing' onto virtual keyboards that only exist on the device's screen. I must also point out how effective handwriting recognition software has become on certain platforms. As an example, this blog has been handwritten onto my Fujitsu T901 Windows 7 Tablet PC using only the stylus. It has also been written in my normal handwriting; long gone are the days when using a stylus meant learning a new 'way' of writing, however simple Graffiti may have been.

It will be interesting to see how much effort manufacturers such as Fujitsu with its range of tablets, Samsung with its Windows slates and Note smartphone, Lenovo, HP, Apple and others put into promoting handwriting recognition, the use of a stylus and voice control compared with the almost universal acceptance of touch screen keyboards.

I believe that the range of ways that users can control devices and enter data has yet to be fully appreciated. What is clear is that there are now multiple options and, overtime, I fully expect individuals will use several of them to achieve different tasks. I, for one, find it much faster to write with a stylus (or indeed a fountain pen) than to type using a keyboard or dictate to a voice transcription program. It also better fits my way of working.

Have you looked at different ways of getting data into your devices?

Tony Lock is Programme Director at Freeform Dynamics.