Sometimes clunky old technologies hang around much longer than the problems they originally solved. The 12-button alphanumeric telephone keypad is a prime example. The letters on each key–“ABC” on the 2 key, “DEF” on the 3 key, and so on–are a legacy of the 1920s, when phone numbers typically started with the first two letters of local telephone exchanges. Students of TV trivia, for example, may remember that the phone number at Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s New York apartment was MUrray Hill 5-9975.
Ma Bell left the alphabet on phones even after the abandonment of exchange names in the late 1950s. The letters didn’t have much use until the advent of vanity dialing in the 1980s (e.g., 1-800-GET-RICH) and the explosion of mobile text messaging in the late 1990s. But now text messaging is at the core of the world’s wireless culture–and the 12-button keypad layout forces billions of mobile subscribers to “triple-type,” pressing keys up to three times to get the letters they want (and up to eight or nine times if their local writing system uses more letters than the Latin alphabet does).
While millions of teens have mastered triple typing on their 12-button phones, it’s an inefficient way to enter text, especially for fat-fingered adults. “If it were a new invention, people would think that it was a very poor idea,” says David Levy, an inventor and former ergonomic designer at Apple.
In fact, Levy thinks that people are so fed up with triple typing that they’re finally ready for a new keypad design, one that places each letter in alphabetical order, without adding a space-consuming QWERTY keyboard like those on RIM’s BlackBerry pager or Palm’s Treo cell phones. Levy’s idea, which he patented in 1993, is simply to place raised letter keys in the corners between the numeric keys. By a happy coincidence, an 18-button numeric keypad (counting navigation keys, special characters, and buttons for starting and ending calls) has 28 available corners; Levy’s design uses all of them except the bottom left and bottom right.
The new layout, called Fastap, is the first major overhaul of the traditional phone keypad since it debuted on touch-tone phones in the 1960s. Levy founded Digit Wireless, based in Lexington, MA, in 2005 to license the idea to phone manufacturers. So far, two mobile operators–Alltel in the United States, and Telus in Canada–have introduced Fastap phones, both made in South Korea by electronics giant LG. (Telus offers the LG 490, and Alltel offers the nearly identical AX490.)
Levy says that the phones are being purchased by mainstream mobile-phone users, not by the geeks and mobile executives who are already addicted to messaging on their BlackBerrys and Treos. And once they buy a Fastap phone, these customers send twice as many text messages as they did on their previous phones, according to usage data collected by Telus over a period of nine months. Most mobile operators charge by the message, so that’s the kind of number they like to hear. “From the consumer perspective, our technology is all about making the phone more usable and fun,” says Levy. “But for the carrier, it’s all about money. Fastap satisfies both needs at the same time.”