Ever since the introduction of mobile text messaging, phone manufacturers and software developers have been innovating systems to ease typing on devices without full qwerty keyboards. An early example is the T9 system which added predictive language capabilities to the familiar numeric keypad cycle-click system in order to greatly accelerate the speed of text messaging.
Today the world is a very different place and the typical smart phone has large screen which doubles as a touch-input device. The fact that the image of the keyboard and the input system itself can be implemented entirely in software has opened the flood gates to independent companies to develop the next generation of touch screen input systems.
A brand new system is causing no small amount of stir in the smart phone area. The new approach discards the traditional individual key taps in favour of a continuously drawn gesture where the operator drags their finger from letter to letter. The continuous gesture system is about as intrusive, at first, as T9 was to those unused to it but the end results are truly remarkable.
Up to now mobile handset manufacturers typically licensed software to operate the keyboards on their handsets, the incorporation of custom UI and input systems serving as a differentiator between competing models of handset, notably recently Windows Mobile and Android-based devices. However recently a number of competing companies have either launched products or are running beta programs to gain access to their keyboards directly.
In this respect Windows Mobile and Android-based smartphones, however, which have proven the most fertile ground due to these operating systems possessing the capability of allowing the user to install completely new input software systems which become accessible in all applications. The rising start of Google’s Android and the in-handset Marketplace being a natural store front for smartphone owners to try out the latest and greatest.
Since no such OS-level replacement is possible on Apple’s the tightly controlled iPhone platform, implementations have limited functionality – typically by being usable just for one type of task for which the software has been integrated.The Android Marketplace, conversely, features two freely downloadable implementations in the form of SlideIT and Shape Writer.
However it’s Swype that so far has received the most amount of press including setting a Guinness World Record for text entry speed on a Samsung Omnia II. Swype is notable by having one of the T9 co-authors, Cliff Kushler, involved in the creation of the software. Swype can’t be downloaded from the marketplace in the same way as SlideIT and Shape Writer but interested Android handset owners can go to their web site, enrol in the beta and download an installer for free.
It may be tempting to think of these new gesture-based input systems as being a passing gimmick but the signs are that this is anything but. We found all the keyboards to be significantly faster than using the default Android software keyboard (and the iPhone’s) but special praise must go to Swype which manages an almost clairvoyant level of accuracy. We also liked the way the way accurate punctuation can be stated and capitalisation via sub-gestures is also possible.
With minimal practice these new gesture-based keyboards allow you to type out lengthy and accurate emails with one hand while on the move, not something that was particularly feasible in the past. Given the intense interest in the keyboards on the Android marketplace, it seems likely that Apple will either implement third party keyboards or incorporate the technology itself in a subsequent OS update.
Improving the ability to type on small screen devices looks set to provide yet further impetus behind the rapid adoption of the smartphone and tablet market as they go head to head against larger keyboard-equipped netbooks.