Touch-typing keyboard apps for mobile devices flood Mobile World Congress

BARCELONA—The average person hunts and pecks entire sentences on a smartphone keyboard multiple times a day, whether it's a quick text message, a longer email, or an entire article or document.

With most smartphones lacking a physical keyboard, however, that means endlessly moving fingers across a flat screen with little to no capacitive response. This isn’t the most ergonomic approach, and our hands have to adapt to the motion and method.

Although features such as predictive text, autocorrect, and alternative typing methods like Swype are designed to help people type more efficiently, they aren’t the best option for every user.

To try to fix this problem, app developers are jumping into smartphone keyboards, and I saw quite a few of these types of apps here this week. Each app has its own innovative method for promoting better typing, but the general message is loud and clear: There has to be a better way to type on a touchscreen.

One step ahead

Perhaps more-advanced predictions is the way to go. That’s what the team behind SwiftKey has been working on since the first Android handset launched in 2008.

SwiftKey developers created a stand-alone Android app that learns common phrases and words from you as you type. Over time, the app understands the context of language and suggests words for you before you even start to enter them.

The app connects with your Facebook page, Gmail account, Twitter handle, RSS feed, or blog to learn more about you and the language you naturally use. The longer you use SwiftKey, the more it understands, and the less work you have to put into typing.

Here's a video showing how SwiftKey works:

“Autocorrect isn’t thinking about sentence context and what comes next,” says Joe Braidwood, SwiftKey’s chief marketing officer. “So we thought, ‘That’s dumb, we’re going to change this.’”

Braidwood explains that the original Android keyboard suffered in earlier versions due to the platform's rushed launch to compete with the iPhone. That gave SwiftKey an advantage, and the app became widely popular in the Google Play Store when it launched in 2010. By 2012, it was the best selling paid Android app globally.

If you look at the evolution of the built-in Android keyboard, its predictive capabilities are improving, but they still seem to be one step behind SwiftKey’s technology.

As SwiftKey continues to distinguish itself as a leader in predictive text—the company announced continued growth with its new SwiftKey Healthcare platform at MWC—other developers are starting to follow suit.

The team at WordLogic is taking a similar approach: They have built a solid prediction technology through different dictionaries that can work in stand-alone apps.

WordLogic has been in the predictive-text game since the late 1990s, having produced the keyboard tech behind the Palm Pilot (remember those?), but the company was at MWC this week to promote its new keyboard app for Android, iKnowU.

Like SwiftKey, iKnowU learns from the user and remembers common phrases and words. However, iKnowU excels in predicting a string of words together, such as a phrase or a short sentence. It also guesses which keys you’re likely to press next, which it highlights on the screen in a bright green or blue. The colors represent how many predicted words are associated with that key.

Here's iKnowU in action:

If you want iKnowU to remember some slang, names, or other unusual words that you use often—without waiting for it to actually, well, get to know you—you can enter them manually. This combination of predictions and stored phrases makes typing on this keyboard lightning fast once you’ve had some practice.

Because Apple doesn’t allow additional keyboard apps on its devices, the company behind SwiftKey has entered partnerships with other developers to embed this technology in apps for iOS; WordLogic is likely to do the same down the road.

Next: Snapkeys Si and TouchPal Keyboard

Fewer keys, more screen space

Another solution could be to limit the motion users have to make with their thumbs to complete a word or sentence.

That’s the philosophy behind Snapkeys Si, a new app for Android that takes a minimalist approach. Instead of a full-fledged QWERTY keyboard, Snapkeys Si presents only four buttons, which appear as a see-through overlay on your display.

Each of these buttons sports three letters—supposedly, the most commonly used consonants and vowels. If you need to use a letter or punctuation mark that isn’t associated with a button, you just tap in the middle.

See Snapkeys Si at work:

As you’re typing, Snapkeys predicts the word you’re trying to spell, and displays a list of suggestions on the right side of the screen; you then tap the word to select it. Because of the unique keyboard, its memory isn’t so hot, but you do have a way to add a word to your dictionary if Snapkeys can’t remember it.

Snapkeys Si officially launched here at MWC this week and is still in beta, so it’s a bit clunky. Plus, going from a full keyboard to only a few buttons takes some adjustment. This motion is less stressful on your thumbs, however, and the design offers one bonus.

“We want to help people get their screen real estate back,” says Hillel Porath of Snapkeys, “and once you get used to it, you can make the buttons invisible and type without them.”

Although Snapkeys is in beta, it’s free in the Google Play Store and is available in English and Spanish, with more languages in development.

Connect the words

Some people find it more comfortable to skip typing altogether, which is what makes Swype such a popular technology.

TouchPal Keyboard has had letter-to-letter swipe technology in its keyboard for quite some time; using it involves sliding your finger across the keyboard to reach the letters you want, and it predicts the word you’re trying to “type.”

At MWC this week, however, the company announced that an upcoming update to TouchPal Keyboard due in March 2013 will bring word-to-word swiping.

This update, called TouchPal Wave, introduces gestures that create full sentences. To use it, you start sliding to type as usual, but after you enter the first word, Wave will guess what you’d like to say next. For example, if you want to say, “Hi, looking forward to seeing you,” start swiping from letter to letter to spell it out in full. Soon, your keyboard will list a few words it thinks you’re trying to find.

Over the L key, TouchPal will show the word looking, over the F it will have forward, and over the T, it will say to. You simply swipe from word to word to string the sentence together.

As with other keyboards, the more you use TouchPal, the more it learns about you, and the better it can predict what you intend to say next. This approach helps swipers input words much faster than they could before.

Whatever the method, predictive-text and keyboard technologies are getting smarter and more efficient than ever before, as these third-party apps demonstrate.

With this new wave of services crashing into the Android market, mobile OS developers need to start paying attention, because their standard offerings just aren’t cutting it.

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