It wasn't too long ago that schools offered classes with names like "Keyboarding" that were pitched as teaching a skill that would be vital for life and work in the 21st century. As it turns out, all those hours spent building the muscle memory to get your fingers to really fly around a clunky keyboard are becoming less valuable by the day. 

That's because the "typing gap"--the difference in typing speeds between mobile devices and physical keyboards--is shrinking at a rather shocking speed. 

Recent research conducted on mobile typing revealed that society is getting faster typing on tiny, screen-based keyboards and slower overall on the big, old physical clunkers.

"We were amazed to see that users typing with two thumbs achieved 38 words per minute on average, which is only about 25 percent slower than the typing speeds we observed in a similar large-scale study of physical keyboards," explained Anna Feit, a researcher at ETH Zürich university who co-authored a paper on the experiment's findings. "While one can type much faster on a physical keyboard, up to 100 words per minute, the proportion of people who actually reach that is decreasing. Most people achieve between 35 and 65 wpm."

The researchers saw one touchscreen user who managed to type at a blazing 85 wpm. They also predict that the gap will continue to narrow as typing tools for smartphones like auto-correct improve and we all spend less time with big physical keyboards. 

The study, which was presented at the 21st International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction With Mobile Devices and Services, also found that typing with two thumbs and auto-correct enabled generally produces top speeds.

Not surprisingly, younger people also type faster on touchscreens. Those between 10 and 19 years old were found to type about 10 wpm faster than those in their 40s. And perhaps the worst news for those of us closer to the latter end of the spectrum is that those keyboarding classes truly were a waste. 

"This [touchscreen typing] is a type of motor skill that people learn on their own with no formal training, which is very unlike typing on physical keyboards. It is an intriguing question what could be achieved with a careful training program for touchscreens," explained Antti Oulasvirta, co-author and professor at Aalto University.

I have to wonder if overall this makes us a little less efficient as a society, as our overall communication rate decreases. But then I remember the lesson of my 1996 keyboarding class: This will all be moot sooner than you think. 

By the time we type as fast on a tiny screen with our thumbs as the fastest physical keyboard typists, we'll all be dictating at the speed of thought thanks to Elon Musk's Neuralink or some other sort of direct brain interface.

But the answer isn't to give up and just wait to be plugged into the Matrix. The advantages of mobile typing already outweigh the discrepancy in speed, even as it shrinks every day. 

At this point, with devices that come with a stylus, voice recognition, and software to transform touchscreen scribbles into valuable notes, mobile typing provides an obvious ease of use that's tough to beat. 

Several years ago at a press event in which a gaggle of reporters was led through a Texas factory, I first noticed a number of younger journalists taking notes on their phones as we walked. This wasn't common practice at the time, and I thought it a bit absurd. That is until I thought about the hour I would later have to spend translating and typing up my sloppily scribbled notes on my old paper notepad. 

Touchscreens and mobile broadband are increasingly allowing work to be done away from cubicles and desks where old-school keyboards live. So even if mobile keyboarding also eventually becomes obsolete, taking a class in it (or at least upping your touchscreen typing game) might be worth considering.

Published on: Oct 10, 2019
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