While we're tapping, swiping and pinching our way through apps, there's one element that is critical to the iPad actually living up to the claim that it's not merely a device for content consumption, but also for content creation: the virtual keyboard.
The iPad's virtual keyboard comes much closer to typing on a physical keyboard than its counterpart on the iPhone. This is largely due to its size and the fact that the keys are square rather than rectangular. But there are also some issues that make it less useful than it could be. What follows are a handful of suggested changes to the iPad's virtual keyboard that would improve usability and productivity.
Add a way to forward-delete
Why Apple left this one out is a mystery to me. As of now there is no way to forward-delete a character. The only ways to delete characters are to either select several and the press the backspace (or delete) key, or to place the caret on the right side of the respective character(s) and press delete. If the characters you want to delete are to the right of the current caret position, you'll either need to try to hit the right spot by tapping once (which isn't easy) or tap and hold to get the magnifying glass and reposition the caret.
This is clumsy at best. And it would be so easy to implement a forward-delete. Just make the shift key reverse the delete key's behaviour. This behaviour would be similar to what you get on the physical keyboard of a MacBook, for example: fn+backspace works as forward-delete.
Add cursor keys
This one is not as easy to implement. The keyboard layout would need to be changed quite a bit for cursor keys to reasonably fit. On the other hand, that's the big advantage of a virtual keyboard: you can put new keys on it much easier than on a physical keyboard. So, assuming cursor keys could be added at all, they could be made optional. Or they could be added in between the split keyboard. Caret movement via keys is already implemented in iOS, by the way, as it works perfectly with the Apple Wireless Keyboard and many iPad editors add their own extended keyboards that often include cursor keys.
Update: Here's a demo of how cursor keys could work. Looks very usable.
You have probably noticed that the iPad's virtual keyboard has a feature called auto-capitalization. The way this works is that the keyboard automatically switches to uppercase mode in certain contexts, for example at the beginning of a sentence (after a full stop and a blank). It also remembers where you manually switched to uppercase, so, should you backspace-delete a manually capitalized word (e.g. Jobs), the keyboard automatically switches to uppercase mode once you delete the first letter of that word.
The problem with this is that, should you accidentally capitalize a word and then go back to correct your mistake, the keyboard tries to be smart and will therefore automatically activate caps. So you'll have to first deacticate it and then retype the word in small letters.
You can disable auto-capitalization in preferences, but there are two ways to solve this more elegantly. For one, the virtual keyboard could just stop trying to be extra smart and limit auto-capitalization to the beginning of sentences. Secondly, it could offer you capitalization options upon double-tapping a word so you wouldn't have to retype a wrongly capitalized word manually at all. Both ideas could be combined.
Make key captions reflect capitalization state
While we're on the topic of capitalization: Apple should change the captioning of the keyboard keys according to capitalization. Meaning, if caps are on, the letters on the keyboard should be caps, otherwise they should show small letters. Many other virtual keyboards – even the PS Vita's – are already doing this and I think it greatly improves usability. I frequently capitalize words because I didn't notice that caps are on. The blue highlighting of the shift key is a nice idea, but that key is covered by my hands most of the time while typing. Making all the keys indicate if caps are on or off is much better.
Apple likes to emphasize how flexible a virtual keyboard is compared to a physical one. Why they chose to make the iPad's keyboard behave like a physical one in this regard is beyond me.
Reduce input lag
As good as the iPad's virtual keyboard is - at least as virtual keyboards go, anyway - there is a noticeable lag between hitting a key and the respective character appearing on the screen. This is most noticeable when you type fairly quickly, where the software tries to keep up with your typing speed. This lag, at least for me, kind of destroys the illusion of direct manipulation that touch interfaces are so keen to uphold. I always feel like I'm "typing by wire" when I'm writing something on the iPad's virtual keyboard. The experience using a physical keyboard is much more natural and immediate.
The 3rd-generation iPad doesn't suffer from this problem anymore, probably due to its faster processor, but the iPad 2 and especially the first iPad generation could definitely use some attention in this regard.
Add more options for selecting text
The current text menu options for selecting text are Select and Select All which select a single word and the whole document, respectively. Options for selecting a sentence and a paragraph would come in handy.
Update: You can actually select a paragraph by tapping with two fingers. Thanks to Joshua Bowman for the tip.
Add keyboard shortcuts
Keyboard shortcuts are probably one of the biggest productivity boosters operating systems and apps can offer. Desktop operating systems and apps all support a plethora of shortcuts, allowing you to quickly invoke commands that would otherwise require you to use the mouse, which, for many people, is a lot slower and more cumbersome.
The iPad's virtual keyboard doesn't offer any kind of keyboard shortcuts (except double-tapping the spacebar to insert a period and a space). Apple's reasoning is probably that keyboard shortcuts are for power users and the iPad is mostly targeting computer novices and casual users. While this makes sense to an extent, from the perspective of being creative on the iPad, keyboard shortcuts would greatly increase productivity for writers. Many writers probably use an external keyboard, which does in fact support a limited set of shortcuts. Nevertheless, the virtual keyboard would profit from supporting at least the same shortcuts as an external keyboard.
The way this could be implemented is by adding a single modifier key to the virtual keyboard, for example in the lower left corner. Some existing keys would have to be resized for the new key to fit, but Apple already does this in several other instances (for example, when you use more than one keyboard layout) and the modifier key could be made optional through a preference setting.
Update: Here's a pretty helpful video by Macworld's Dan Miller with some little-known tricks for the iPad's virtual keyboard:
If Apple takes the creative potential of the iPad seriously – and I think they do – they should make it show by turning the virtual keyboard into a serious tool for writing. The keyboard is fairly good already, but I – probably like many others – often find myself wishing for more.
The most glaring problem for me is the lack of a way to forward-delete. Being limited to backspace-delete is tedious and also totally unnecessary. Just this small change alone would go a long way in terms of usability. But (possibly optional) arrow keys shouldn't be dismissed either. There's a reason many iPad editing apps include them in their extended keyboards.