One of the beauties of the English language is its uncanny ability to assimilate new terms as they become part of the lexicon through increasing use in conversation and in print.

One such term that caught my attention recently, and is apparently catching on in some circles, is “thumbable.” Lets consider for a moment what this word could mean.

thumbable (thum-uh-bull) adj.1. a crack or breach in a dike or levee that can be filled by a Dutch boys thumb, thereby preventing further leakage. 2. a feature film that is subject to review by certain television-based movie critics. 3. an automobile driver who is likely to pick up every hitchhiker he or she encounters. 4. a pie from which a plum can be pulled out using the opposable digit, ostensibly by a “good boy.”

While all these seem like suitable definitions (and you may well have some ideas of your own on the subject), the de rigueur use today applies to those tiny keyboards that are attached to cellphones and personal digital assistants (PDAs). The idea is that, using our thumbs instead of all of our digits, we can type messages or other information into these devices. Thus, the mini-keyboards are deemed “thumbable.” But are they really?

It seemed to me that most peoples thumbsat least most adults thumbswere probably too large to easily input data on tiny keyboards via this method.

To test this idea, I visited the local Radio Shack store and asked to see the keyboards that would work with my Palm Pilot. Sure enough, on both models I handled, my thumbs easily covered two keys at once without pressing downand I hasten to add that my hands and, alas, my thumbs, are not especially large.

Back at the office, I asked a colleague who has a small organizer with a keyboard to let me try that device. This one was better, with my thumbs just slightly touching adjacent keys as they rested on a selected key. The keyboard area, however, was about 1.5 times larger than the area on the mini-keyboards.

Also, my colleague shared his particular thumbing technique with me. It seems when he applies his thumbs to the keyboard, he uses only the tips, keeping things in a delicate balance that minimizes the ratio of total tactile thumb area to exposed key area, if I may wax mathematical for a moment.

Still, and this is my point, these tiny keyboards are simply errors waiting to happen. Sure, theyre light and portable and you look really cool when you seem to effortlessly input information on your tiny state-of-the-art device. But lets face it, how fast can you actually type without upsetting the aforementioned ratio and subjecting yourself, and possibly others, to potentially serious mistakes?

Its surprisingly easy to miss that “t” key and type an “r” when your ham hock of a thumb covers both keys (Im speaking hypothetically here, not meaning to denigrate the digits of anyone in particular.). The harm could be more significant when typing in numbers with those sledgehammers.

And heres another problem. Not everyone is going to be as adept as my colleague at maintaining the all-important flesh-to-key ratio. Dare I say itthey might be “all thumbs?”

OK, sorry, but you get the point.

So why am I spending so much time and ink on this particular digital dilemma? The answer is that all kinds of technology pundits are telling us that the wireless devices that utilize these tiny keyboards are the future of business communicationand they may be right.

What these pundits fail to recognize (and your guru sees all too clearly) however, is that the difficulty of maintaining the critical flesh-to-key ratiothus avoiding errorsis one of the primary reasons that wireless technology has failed to grow at the rate predicted by those very same pundits.

The problem is that these devices have gotten so small that the human/machine interface has been compromised. To put it simply: Only people with very tiny fingers can type quickly and accurately on a PDAwith apologies to those who have developed a slammin thumbing technique.

Lest you think Im thumbing my nose at PDAs, Internet-ready cellphones and other such devices, however, let me say that I do see a future in which we will be able to accurately input information into them without learning the opposable mambo.

That will happen when wireless devices have enough computing powervia advances in microscopic-level computingto enable speech recognition. In other words, well be able to speak into our PDAs and have the words recorded as a word processing document, which we can then edit, also using speech.

This wont happen any time soon, however, which means that for all practical purposes, Lilliputian keyboards are suitable for sending only the briefest of messagesand only messages that wont cause big problems if they contain errors.

So overall, Id have to say that, for the moment, the verdict on mini-keyboards isthumbs down.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 16, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.