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It’s time! Apple keyboard finally open for improvement

Well, it’s been a long time coming. And rumours have been circulating for months. BUt with the release of iOS8, third-party keyboards are finally allowed to crash Apple’s party.

We’ve been vocal critics of Apple’s worst-of-bread keyboard usability. They’ve dogmatically refused to fix it despite rising frustration and ridicule. And finally they’ve relented – not by fixing it themselves but by allowing third party keyboards on board.

This opens the doors to the vastly superior Swiftkey, Swype, Fleksy and Dextr keyboard to improve the texting experience… and in the process improve the usability of not just their devices, but every app that runs on their devices.

We tend to forget how central keyboards are to the entire touchscreen experience. Every time we need to tweet, post, tag, comment, chat, search, SMS or email, we’re reliant on text input. Thanks Apple. And about time!

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Two thumbs down for KALQ

Our WTF??!!?? of the month surely goes to the krazy konfubulation kalled KALQ.

Recently launched by the venerable Max Planck Institute and the no-less-venerable University of St Andrews, KALQ offers to solve the pressing problem of texting on a tablet.

It’s solution: rescramble the alphabet so that your thumb travels the least distance possible between letters. I love it when engineers try to solve ergonomic problems with equations: “If we minimise ze thumb-travelling coefficient, based on ze relative frequency each letter of ze alphabet, we can increase ze speed of typing, ja?” Logic beats intuition.

Max Planck Institute for Informatics

The blank squares represent the space bar and clustered around this central locus are all the high frequency letters… sort of. They claim that with 8 hours of intensive training, you will become as fast as you were on QWERTY. And after 19 hours you could be even faster than QWERTY. With efficiency gains of up to 34%.

Forgive us if we’re underwhelmed. Here’s why:

1. This is a tablet-only solution – so all that retraining is for only one device. which means we’re still condemned to using QWERTY on the rest of our devices.

2. Learning curves – Hate them. It does not take 8 hours to master QWERTY, professors. It takes months (if you take lessons) or even years (if you try to teach yourself). And countless hours of practice. What makes you think this new letter scramble is going to be easier – especially if we’re continually reverting to QWERTY on every other device?

3. History – Do the words Dvorak or Colemak mean anything to you? They too took the logic-over-intuition path, invented their own hard-to-learn letter scramble and have been consigned to the industrial scrap heap of disuse.

4. Intuition eats logic for breakfast – the most widely used and ubiquitous keyboard ever requires no lessons, no hours of rote practice, and no special muscle-motor memory. It’s called the T9 Alphanumeric Keypad. It can be found in the hands and pockets of nearly 6 billion people in every corner of the planet.

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Why is it so popular? Why is it so simple to master? It might have something to do with a letter order every toddler learns in kindergarten. Why, it’s as easy as A B C!

Time to go back to kindergarten, professors.

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Filed under History, Innovation, Interfaces, Mobile, Usability

Kids these days…

Phone Generations

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Siine Keyboard. When Words Fail Me.

If a picture speaks a thousand words, how many words does a pictogram speak?

Not many, it seems. Meet Siine: QWERTY plus pictograms. Its value proposition is that you’ll take less taps to write out a phrase or sentence than a normal keyboard. Less taps maybe, but a helluva LOT more time — since you’ll spend ages browsing its  library of pictograms to find the right icon.

See, you really can type out multiple words just by tapping on different icons or by tapping on a single one multiple times. BUT you’ll either waste too much time fiddling with your message (scratch that, maybe this word is better) or discovering new stuff on the keyboard (ooh, what happens if I tap this one more time?). At one point, I totally lost my train of thought while scrolling thru the icons in the menu.

To make matters worse, they’ve even attached a marketplace to the keyboard itself called the Siine Gallery where you can download even more pictogram sets. Hooray, more icons to waylay me from typing and getting things done!

Granted, the icons are somewhat of a feature that’s tucked away to the side and you still have the QWERTY for back up, right? Wrong. The standard keyboard itself sucks big time. The return key isn’t in the usual place and the backspace doesn’t register long presses for continuous deletion.

In my honest opinion, Siine is more a toy than a keyboard. I really don’t want my keyboard distracting me from the serious job of converting my thoughts into words. I’m having a hard time as it is thinking without having my own keyboard getting in my way.

If you want to try it out though, you’re welcome to download it from the Android Market here or just check out their demo video:

YouTube Preview Image

So is this keyboard a Siine of the times? Or a Siine of things to come?

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Filed under Innovation, Mobile, Usability

HTC Rings Down the Curtain On QWERTY

The touchscreen has finally convinced a major manufacturer that sticking old technology into new devices doesn’t work. That and the fact that market doesn’t seem to be fond of buying these fatter, uglier phones. I know, I know: this is actually about physical keyboards being phased out, regardless if it’s QWERTY or not, but I’ll take it as a win nonetheless.

A QWERTY board on a mobile is just too clunky. No wonder more than one manufacturer has tried to hide it using sliders or by tucking the keyboard out of sight. Even RIM came out with a fully touchscreen phone, despite the BlackBerry brand’s raison d’etre being a physical keyboard. Add to that the stress of having to hit miniscule keys to generate miniscule text on a miniscule screen and you have a recipe for a repetitive injury lawsuit.

But wait, you cry out, how about us folks who are 1000% more productive when using a physical keyboard on our phones?

Sorry folks, it’s called market forces. And a massive migration on a scale never seen before is forcing touch-typers to the margins.

You see, each day, millions of people around the world are joining the touchscreen generation. And the vast majority of them are blissfully ignorant of the QWERTY layout and its quirky foibles. You see, they’ve never owned a computer before. A push-button handphone maybe, but not a PC or latptop. So by adding a physical keyboard with an ancient, cryptic keyboard layout, shrunk down to Mini-Me dimensions, you’re putting a monstrous usability hurdle in their way. These users are opting for sleeker, simpler and more adaptive touchscreen-only phones.

The market has spoken. So far, HTC is the first to listen. Even though QWERTY might still be king, it’s starting to look and smell like Richard the Third.

As people download and try out alternative keyboards via app stores, the market will also start clamoring for physical versions of the better virtual ones. Who knows, Dvorak might finally make headway at last! (Or maybe something even more enlightened and evolved?)

Usability and ergonomics might not be the main reasons why HTC is axing slide-out keyboards but it certainly sends the right signal: Mobile phones need better input mechanisms than the one we inherited from typewriters.

Which keyboard do you prefer on your mobile device: physical slideout or virtual touchscreen?

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Letters Like Lego With the W10 Keyboard

I’ve found another unique solution to the QWERTY keyboard problem: the W10 Keyboard.

The W10 Keyboard

If you’re like me and think of letters as individual characters, it might be hard to grasp how this keyboard works. It might help to imagine that each letter itself is made up of a couple of strokes. You assemble a letter by swiping the strokes together (or tapping on them in sequence, if that works better for you).

For example:

  • l + c = k
  • c + j = g
  •     –  = e
  • l + – = r
  • c + j + l + – + – + – + l + c = greek

If it still feels greek to you, this video might help explain the concept better.

 

 

The W10 Keyboard adopts the Korean way of texting, which might be familiar to you (or completely alien, depending on what side of the planet you’re on). I’m still wrapping my head around the concept and I’m guessing you are too. I suppose it might work for those not weaned on the Latin alphabet, but for me putting together words using letters is tough enough as it is.

A few of its adopters have sworn to the increased speed and accuracy of their typing though, so I guess it does work as long as you persevere through the daunting learning curve.  And if you want to take a break, you can always cheat by going into landscape mode and using the QWERTY keyboard instead.

If you’re curious and want to try it out, you can get it for free from the Android store here.

Do you think the W10 deserves a 10 for an inspired solution? Or do you give it a 0 for making texting even harder than it already is?

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It had to happen: Texting error leads to lockdowns at West Hall middle, high schools

A recipe for disaster:

  1. A usability nightmare: QWERTY on a touchscreen

  2. An algorithm that makes the initial mistake even worse: Auto Correct

  3. Paranoia

As reported in the GainesvilleTimes News:

Texting error leads to lockdowns at West Hall middle, high schools.

Auto correct fail

An auto corrected text message, accidentally sent to the wrong number, was the catalyst to lockdowns Wednesday at West Hall middle and high schools. Just before noon, law enforcement and school officials issued the lockdowns after a West Hall community member reported a threatening text message. The text, saying “gunman be at west hall today,” was received and reported to police around 11:30 a.m. But after police tracked the number, they learned the auto correct feature on the new cellphone changed “gunna” to “gunman.” The message being sent to the wrong number added to the confusion. Read more

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Filed under Mobile, Usability

An iPad keyboard that sits on top of my touchscreen… why didn’t I think of that?

 

This is the first product that actually made me think of trading in my Macbook Air for an iPad. I type pretty fast, the last time I checked it was around 90 wpm, and if there is one terrible compromise in computing over the last 5 years, it’s using a QWERTY keyboard on a touchscreen.

I mean seriously? Isn’t this the 21st century? Thankfully, we have solutions popping up on two fronts: The first, is getting rid of QWERTY and replacing it with something more suited for the touchscreen. And second, is getting rid of the touchscreen part, and bringing QWERTY back to a familiar place.

The latter is the direction that Isaac and Melmon of TouchFire decided to take. I know, I know… there are plenty of USB keyboards, Bluetooth keyboards, and cases with built in keyboards, but if I wanted all that, I would carry around a laptop.

The touchfrire concept is completely different, instead of making something that sits next to the iPad, they made a very simple rubbery overlay that sits on top of the screen — using the touch surface of the iPad as the keyboard itself. This saves a lot of space in your every day carry bag, and also means that there are no batteries or pairing issues… ever!

The beauty of this innovation is that your fingers can actually feel where the keys are – freeing you to look at the screen, not at the keys. Instant tactile feedback – Loving it!

The only downside I can think of is that you’re stuck using a 90 percent scaled keyboard instead of a full sized one, but for those of us on the smaller side of the hand-size spectrum, this is not a major compromise. And it does look a bit fiddly.

So, here are the details: They started out on Kickstarter, which is a platform for funding new ideas by potential buyers and they raised over $200K! Now, you better go pre-order from their website because they’ve already sold out their first production batch.

If you’re sitting in front of an iPad typing on a Touch Fire right now, let us know what you think in the comments, and even if you’ve never heard of it until now, what do you think, yea or nay?

by Elliott Williams

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7Notes: Turning thoughts into words and pictures

 

All keyboards aside, what are we really trying to do here — take our thoughts, ideas, other people’s thoughts, save them… and share them.

There are two major problems doing that with a set of alpha-numeric keys: First, you are stuck recording all of your ideas verbally. Sometimes an image is worth a thousands words, and when all you have is a set of keys, your stuck cranking out those words instead of a doodle.

Second, when you’re typing, all of your notes are linear. This can be problematic when you want to make an outline of the content and jump around a lot (very difficult). And linear notes also don’t take advantage of our spacial memory.

For these two reasons and many more, pen and paper have been king in note taking scenarios, which is why I’m always on the look out for new “drawing” methods of note taking, especially when they’re digital. A digital drawing environment gives you the benefits of pen and paper, while adding searchability, “savability”, and all the other 21st century “abilities”.

As tablets become more popular, I think we’re getting closer to replacing paper (at least for the ‘haves’ side of the digital divide). And with tablets, i.e. touch screens, we have a whole new market for software based data entry methods.

7Notes is one of these new crop and as Tech Crunch puts it: >Recognizing handwritten text isn’t trivial, which is why a new app called 7notes focuses almost entirely on this problem–and does the job really well.

In addition to doing a good job at recognizing handwriting (check out TC’s review to see how good), 7Notes also offers some extra nifty features including:

  • Predictive typing
  • Formating with color
  • Mixing text with images
  • Annotating images
  • “Social Doodling” which is the ability to share and edit other people’s files

So if this sounds like it’s right up your alley, or you have been looking for an excuse to try out that new stylus that you bought with your iPad, check them out. They have a free and premium version for the iPhone and iPad (sorry, only premium gets you hand writing recognition).

So get scribbling and tell us what you think.

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By Elliott Williams

2,532 Comments

Filed under Innovation, Interfaces, Mobile

FrogPad: Turn your Magic Trackpad into a one handed keyboard

Magic Frogpad Frogpad is the one-handed keyboard that keeps on truckin’. It’s a simple sticker that overlays your Apple Trackpad – turning it into a all-in-one mouse+keyboard input device. Brilliant! Here’s the run down of the Frogpad concept:

  • Single handed use – left or right (but keyboards are “keyed” to a particular hand so you can’t switch once you buy)
  • Studies show new users reaching speeds of 40 words per minute in 10 hours, versus the 56 hours (conservative estimate) needed for QWERTY
  • 80 percent of most commonly used words can be typed with the 15 keys that don’t require “cording” (i.e. multi-finger combos)
  • There are multiple letters/numbers/punctuation  on each key, so some “cording” is required
  • On the downside – it doesn’t have that critical “command” key for all those other killer keyboard shortcuts

When I broke my wrist and had to wear a brace for 6 months, this all seemed pretty great. The physical version of the Frogpad was the only major contendor against lefty dvorak. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready to spend 130USD on a new keyboard considering my condition was temporary.

Since then, they seem to have ceased production of all of their physical keyboards, and have started printing keyboard layouts that you can overlay on your Apple Magic Trackpad. This might suggest that they aren’t getting the traction they hoped for, but despite low levels of adoption, if you still want to give a one handed keyboard a shot, ugly-fying your trackpad with a proprietary sticker at the same time, go right ahead. The sticker and software only cost 14.99USD so it’s a pretty painless way to move beyond the clunkiness of QWERTY.

Have you tried the Frogpad? How do you rate the one-handed typing experience? How long did you take to adjust to the new letter layout?

 via ubergizmo

By Elliott Williams

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Filed under Innovation, Interfaces