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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.

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Bye bye iCal, welcome org-mode

January 4, 2011

I have been using Macintosh computers since 2003, and overall I have been happy with the personal information management (PIM) tools provided by Apple: AddressBook, Mail, Safari (for bookmark management). The one tool I have never liked is iCal. Its user interface is fine for consulting my agenda, but entering information is too complicated and the todo-list management is particularly clumsy. But more importantly, I regularly found myself wanting to add information for which no entry field was provided. I ended up putting it into the “notes” section, or leave it out. Another unplesant feature of iCal is that all the information is stored in a complex proprietary database, making synchronization between several computers impossible except through cloud-based server solutions such as Apple’s MobileMe (quite expensive) or fruux (much nicer in my opinion, but it still requires trusting your data to a cloud service).

Being unhappy with a tool for an important task implies looking for better options, but I didn’t find anything that I liked. Until one day I discovered, mostly by accident, the org-mode package that has been distributed with Emacs for a while. org-mode is one of those pieces of software that is so powerful that it is difficult to describe to someone who has never used it. Basically, org-mode uses plain text files with a special lightweight markup syntax for things like todo items or time stamps (but there is a lot more), and then provides sophisticated and very configurable functions for working with this data. It can be used for keeping agendas, todo lists, journals, simple databases such as bookmark lists, spreadsheets, and much more. Most importantly, all of these can coexist in a single text file if you want, and the contents of this file can be structured in any way you like. You can even add pieces of executable code and thus use org-mode for literal programming, but that’s a topic for another post.

To be more concrete, my personal information database in org-mode consists of several files at the top level: work.org for organizing my workday, home.org for tasks and appointments related to private life, research.org for notes about research projects, programming.org for notes (mostly bookmarks) about software development, etc. Inside my work.org, there is a section on research projects, one on teaching, one on my editorial work for CiSE, one for refereeing, etc. Inside each of these sections, there are agenda entries (seminars, meetings, courses etc.) and todo entries with three priority levels and optional deadlines. Any of them can be accompanied by notes of any kind, including links, references to files on my disk, and even executable shell commands. There is no limit to what you store there.

In October 2010 I started the transition from iCal to org-mode. Initially I entered all data twice, to make sure I could continue to rely on iCal. After a week I was confident enough to enter everything just once, using org-mode. I then transferred all agenda items for 2011 to org-mode and decided to stop using iCal on Januray 1, 2011. That day has arrived, and the iCal icon has disappeared from my dock. Without any regrets.

Conclusion: If you need a powerful PIM system and you don’t fear Emacs, have a look at org-mode.