IDC: The future of mobile device user input

Ramon Llamas is a senior research analyst with IDC's Mobile Devices Technology and Trends team. Ten years ago, nearly every mobile phone in the United States offered an alphanumeric keypad. Demands on the mobile phone back then were simple, even singular: make and receive phone calls. No one imagined how user input would evolve to where it is today. A Qwerty keyboard on a mobile phone? Why would someone want that and who'd want to hold something that large to their cheek? A touchscreen on a mobile phone, what's that? As incredulous as these ideas may have seemed a decade ago, consider the following data points, taken from IDC's United States Mobile Phone Tracker:

  • In 2008, 20.5 percent of all mobile phones shipped in the United States included a Qwerty or SureType (also known as compressed Qwerty, in which two letters share a single key) keypad. In 2009, that number reached to 37.2 percent.
  • In 2008, 14.0 percent of all mobile phones shipped in the United States included a touchscreen. In 2009, that number climbed to 23.9 percent.
  • In 2008, 76.1 percent of all mobile phones shipped in the United States included an alphanumeric keypad. In 2009, that number dropped to 57.3 percent.

Seismic shift? Probably not. But it does highlight several points. First and foremost, the need for a Qwerty keyboard or a touchscreen indicates greater demand for data. It should come as no surprise that users in the United States want to do more than make phone calls. They want to text, social network, surf the mobile Internet, look at pictures and video, as well as a myriad of many other uses. Can these and other functions be done on an alphanumeric keypad? Yes, although perhaps with some challenges and requisite patience. But more importantly, users want to interact with the data. The inclusion of a Qwerty makes for faster typing, and a touchscreen allows faster navigation. Users become more attuned to how well they can navigate through the screens and applications as a result, making for an overall efficient process. Anyone with a Qwerty or touchscreen-enabled device today would be hard pressed to move to an alphanumeric one.

Another point to consider is carrier support. Looking at the list of mobile phones available at Verizon Wireless, more than half feature Qwerty and/or touchscreen input. AT&T boasts that approximately half of its subscribers are on an integrated device (a device featuring a Qwerty keyboard or touchscreen). These devices help drive ARPU, and no doubt that more are on the way. Given these dynamics at the two leading wireless carriers in the United States and that other carriers would most likely follow suit, is this the death-knell of alphanumeric input?

The case for continued alphanumeric input

It would be too easy to write off alphanumeric input, this year or five years from now. The growth of Qwerty and touchscreen devices is undeniable, and are popular choices as replacements. Who wouldn't want to text, social network, surf the mobile Internet, look at pictures and video with ease? Simple: people who only want, or are only allowed to make phone calls. Yes, they exist, and their numbers are not insignificant. I can readily point to a number of baby boomers as well as a number of parents of first time users who prefer the simplest of input methods on a device. Should these phones become broken or lost, replacing them with an equally simple device does not pose too much of a financial loss.

The future of user input

The next phase in user input has begun, with a small number of devices combining the two input methods--Qwerty keyboard and touchscreen--onto one device. If we revisit the data points mentioned earlier to determine the proportion of devices offering both Qwerty and touchscreen input, only 5.1 percent of all mobile phones shipped featured both in 2008. Of those, most of them were for smartphones. One year later, that number more than doubled to 10.4 percent, and this time the majority went to feature phones. While the cost of a device with both input methods is greater than the cost of a device with just one, I'd argue that the dual-input device allows for a much more interactive experience, user loyalty, and higher ARPU. Moreover, the pace at which these dual-input devices is growing shows that not only are they ready to gain more market share, but that they stand to cannibalize single-input devices as well. With this in mind, handset vendors should consider the following:

  • Functionality is tantamount to the dual-input experience. I expect little to no delay when I type on a Qwerty keyboard that a character shows up on the screen, and that a touchscreen will respond to any command (pinch, stretch, zoom) instantly. These can sometimes be solved with OTA updates for smartphones, but feature phones don't typically have such recourse.
  • Dual-input devices, aside from functioning well, should also ‘feel right' to the user. HTC's TouchPro 2, a smartphone that offers both touchscreen and Qwerty input, felt too heavy in my hands and in my pocket. Similarly, the touchscreen on Palm's Pre and Pixi devices felt just fine to use, but the small keyboard made typing a cramp-inducing process.
  • Constant feedback from the user base is warranted, not just to see if the device will sell, but to explore the device from a user's perspective. Does the input hold up well to certain use cases over others? And how do third party applications play in? Just because the hardware is there, its seamless integration to the software must also prove its value.

I don't expect a Qwerty/touchscreen input to be the be-all, end-all for all input methods. It will take its rightful place alongside alphanumeric, Qwerty, and touchscreen input. And perhaps someday it will give way to a new input method. Voice activation and gesture-activated commands leveraging a device's accelerometer are still developing, and have yet to reach the mainstream. Still, user input will remain a hot topic as vendors carve out new differentiators and experiences.

Ramon Llamas is a senior research analyst with IDC's Mobile Devices Technology and Trends team. In his role, Llamas tracks the quarterly results of the leading and emerging mobile device vendors, and uses the data to forecast the short-term and long-term direction of the mobile device market, and how it affects handset vendors, carriers and customers. He recently released his worldwide mobile phone and smartphone 2010 - 2014 forecasts, as well as a worldwide forecast of the mobile phone touchscreen market. In addition to being featured in FierceWireless, Llamas has been featured on Bloomberg Radio, National Public Radio, and quoted in Investors Business Daily, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Llamas can be reached at [email protected].