A customer compares pictures taken with an Iphone 6 (R) and the new Iphone 7 (L) at Puerta del Sol Apple Store the day the company launches their Iphone 7 and 7 Plus on September 16, 2016 in Madrid, Spain
A customer compares pictures taken with an Iphone 6 (R) and the new Iphone 7 (L) at Puerta del Sol Apple Store the day the company launches their Iphone 7 and 7 Plus on September 16, 2016 in Madrid, Spain

Did the iPhone almost have a QWERTY keyboard? Thank god it didn’t

A new book suggests the iPhone almost ended up as a BlackBerry clone. Here’s why we should be grateful it didn’t work out like that

Andrew Griffin
Friday 16 June 2017 18:40

If you’ve ever used a BlackBerry, you’ll know that most of them have physical keyboards on them – although even BlackBerry seems to moving away from that model for many of its latest handsets.

The BlackBerry QWERTY keyboards are easy to use, and fast typing is a breeze. So it’s no surprise that Apple considered putting one on the first iPhone, right?

Except it really doesn’t seem likely. In his forthcoming book, “The One Device: the Secret History of the iPhone”, excerpted by The Verge, Brian Merchant says it was. In it, he quotes interviews where a former Apple executive, Tony Fadell, suggests that another exec, Phil Schiller, had an idee fixe for a QWERTY, insisting that leaving one out was a big mistake.

Now, you can see why this was possible – the BlackBerry was a huge success before the iPhone launched in 2007 and for some years after, and the keyboard was one of the most loved elements in its devices. In several keynotes, Steve Jobs praised BlackBerry for its products. But I don’t buy it.

Not least because, since the excerpt was printed, Schiller has said it’s not true. And so has Tony Fadell. Fadell, let’s remember, left Apple to set up Nest, the cute smart thermostat which was then bought by Apple’s arch-rival Google. Fadell has no reason to tow the line now he’s post-Apple.

That debate will continue with both sides claiming authenticity, no doubt, but to me is still seems unlikely because one of the origins of the iPhone, according to Walter Isaacson’s authorised biography of Steve Jobs, was the large-screen tablet we now know as the iPad. This had been in development and then put on hold before the iPhone arrived.

Putting a QWERTY on an iPad is pretty unthinkable and I’d guess that was the case when they shrunk the iPad prototype to start thinking about the iPhone.

And this is Apple, a company where intuitive interface comes in above every other concern apart from sleek design.

Merchant says initial designs for the iPhone were based on the iPod’s clickwheel, which would have been a remarkable gadget to have seen. Apple saw that couldn’t work and I suspect would have had the same feeling about a keyboard.

And Schiller is a details man, who recognises the importance of an improved MacBook Pro hinge as clearly as a phone interface.

And more importantly, it’s a good thing they didn’t plump for QWERTY. Typing on the little virtual keyboard wasn’t as slick as some people would have liked but the predictive spelling capabilities of the iPhone were great from day one. Since then, bigger screens have made touchscreen typing easier, predictive spelling has been augmented with word predictions, for instance. And now, if I’m somewhere private, I’ll dictate my texts and emails.

Apple ain’t perfect, but it’s a company that shoots for the moon, with the long-term view always the one it favours. It hates limitations, loves the freedom that, for instance, a touchscreen offers.

As Steve Jobs explained 10 years ago when he revealed the iPhone, it was the versatility of a touchscreen where you could replace a virtual number pad with a virtual keyboard or full-screen web browser, all in an instant, that was one of the key features which set the iPhone apart.

And Apple isn’t done with the keyboard yet. The iPad Pro has an improved size virtual keyboard on screen and a physical keyboard add-on which, crucially, you can leave at home.

What’s more, this autumn the new iOS 11 software for iPad includes a clever new keyboard where you can flick the keys for numbers, symbols and more.

I’m not saying Apple didn’t think about putting a physical QWERTY on the iPhone – heck, this is a company that called in philosophers to help them understand time from a different point of view when they were devising the Apple Watch – but I don’t believe it was an idea that would fly from a company that was determined to reinvent the mobile phone, or that a senior executive would have dug their heels in over it.

And it only takes a moment picturing the iPhone, clad with a physical keyboard at its base to make you thank your lucky stars they threw the idea out.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments