Archive for May 2011

Text input on mobile devices

May 2, 2011

I have been using mobile (pocket size) computers for about 15 years, starting with the Palm Pilot. Currently I use an Android smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S). While mobile devices are mostly used for consulting rather than for entering information, text entry has always been a hot topic of debate.

Apple’s Newton Messagepad, probably the first mobile computing device in the modern sense, pursued the ambitious goal of handwriting recognition. It was both an impressive technical achievement and a practical failure. I don’t think anyone ever managed to use the Newton’s handwriting recognition satisfactorily in daily life.

The Palm Pilot had a more modest but also more achievable goal: its Graffiti technology was based on single letter recognition with simplified letter shapes. It took a while to become fluent with Graffiti, but many people managed and I don’t remember anyone complainig about. the nearning curve.

I don’t remember when I first saw a miniature QWERTY keyboard on the screen of a mobile device, but it may well have been on one of the first iPhones. I was definitely not enthusiastic about it. The keys are much too small for touch-typing, and the layout was already a bad choice for desktop computer keyboards. The only argument in its favor is familiarity, but is that a good enough reason to cripple oneself for a long time to come?

When I got my Android phone, I was rapidly confronted with this issue in practice. Samsung left me the choice between the standard keyboard and Swype. Both had the same problem: too small keys for my fingers. I turned to the Android market and found many more QWERTY keyboards. And… Graffiti, my old friend from my Palm days. What a relief!

Of course, my phone is not a Palm. The Biggest difference is that the Palm had a stylus whereas today’s smartphones are meant to be manipulated withthe fingers. But Graffiti works surprisingly well without a stylus. I find that I can write about equally well wïth the index or the thumb. Graffiti definitely is a good choice for Android, especially for Palm veterans.

Recently I discovered another alternative input and I like it enough that I might end up preferring it over Graffiti. It’s called MessagEase and it consists of a 3×3 grid of comfortably large keys that display the 9 most frequent characters. The remaining characters, plus punctuation etc., is available by drawing lines outward from the center of a key. The technique doesn’t require much time to master, but writing fluently requires a lot of practice because the layout needs to be memorized.

I started using MessagEase about two weeks ago and have reached about the same speed I ge with Graffiti. I wrote this whole article with MessagEase as a real-life exercise. Time will tell if I actually get faster than with Graffiti, but MessagEase definitely is a serious candidate for mobile texting in the post-QWERTY era. If you have an Android phone or an iPhone, give it a try.