Teachers around the world, rejoice. A new mobile-phone technology could restore your students' spelling and grammar skills.
Swype is software that offers a new way of typing on touchscreen keyboards. Instead of tapping individual letters, Swype users don't pick up their fingers. Instead, they drag one finger across the keyboard from letter to letter. Swype's algorithms figure out which words the user is trying to spell.
"There's not really that much speed loss to finishing a word," said Aaron Sheedy, Swype's chief operating officer. "You can write complete sentences and words. Vocabulary matters again. This may be the rebirth of language."
Rather than text "c u there", an "error-prone, terse sentence", users are more apt to write a complete message, he said. "You can write full, flowing, eloquent sentences," he said.
It remains to be seen if Swype becomes widely used and decreases the propensity texters have to create word variants that make many an English teacher cringe, but it appears that typing on Swype can be faster than tapping individual letters.
Just ask Franklin Page, a Swype intern, who last week won the Guinness World Record for fastest on-screen texting by using Swype.
Page had been on his new job at Swype for a couple of weeks when Samsung contacted the company asking if Swype thought someone there might be able to break the world record for fastest texting by using Swype, Sheedy said.
Page's boss asked him if he wanted to give it a try. Within just a couple of minutes of trying, Page reported back that he'd broken the record. Next stop: New York City, to perform a texting test in front of an official from the Guinness Book of World Records.
There, Page typed the official Guinness Book phrase: "The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human" in 35.5 seconds. That beat the previous text-messaging record and also set a new record for fastest text message on a touch-screen phone.
Page has been asked to appear on 'Good Morning America'.
Despite all the buzz around the record, Swype faces a difficult task in persuading phone makers and people to use the technology. It has managed to get the software loaded onto six popular phones: HTC's MyTouch and HD2, Motorola's Cliq XT and i1, and Samsung's Omnia 2 and Galaxy S.
In a demonstration, Sheedy was super-fast typing with Swype. Users don't have to hit the space key. Correcting wrong words is easy too - users choose the right word from a list and then the cursor automatically jumps to the end of the sentence.
I wasn't so fast. I'm very familiar with where the keys are on a standard keyboard, but I'm not accustomed to using my right index finger to hit the 'd' key, for example. That meant I spent a bit of time looking for the letter I wanted.
There are a couple of tricks to learn too. For instance, drawing a circle around a letter indicates that you want to use that letter twice in a row.
All of that means that there's a learning curve to using Swype, and that presents a real hurdle to adoption. Swype doesn't yet know if people who have the phones with the software are using it or if they've turned it off, but the company plans to work with operators and phone makers to survey users, Sheedy said.
Swype doesn't know exactly how many phones its software is on. While Swype earns licensing revenue on each phone sold with the software, the phones have only appeared this quarter and there's a bit of a lag from handset makers and carriers reporting sales.
If people do start using it and get the hang of it, I can imagine that it's faster than other ways of typing on an on-screen keyboard. And that's the point.
"Everyone knows there's a problem - it's hard to tap on screen," Sheedy said. "Every single owner of a touch screen says it's one of the key drawbacks."
Phone manufacturers are happy to try to address that issue too, since building physical keyboards into phones is expensive. "Manufacturers and carriers love the idea of a touchscreen, but they have to solve the thing that people hate about it and that's input," he said.
The Swype software could appear in an array of other devices in the future, but don't expect to see it on an iPhone or the iPad any time soon.
Swype met with Apple to discuss using Swype on the iPhone, Sheedy said. The company appeared interested - until the Swype software popped up on other phones. "They said, 'we're disappointed you have other customers,'" he said. Swype meets with Apple now and again, but Sheedy didn't sound particularly hopeful of doing a deal. "We're happy in the meantime to be one of the features that others like Samsung and Motorola can use to differentiate their devices against the iPhone," he said.
Beyond mobile phones, Sheedy envisions Swype appearing in GPS devices in cars and tablet PCs. It could also be helpful in combination with a TV remote control. People who connect PCs or other devices to their TVs to watch streaming content face input challenges. Swype envisions users sitting on their couches with a remote control that they can point at the screen and use with Swype to type on an on-screen keyboard.
In fact, that's similar to the way Swype was initially designed to be used. The idea behind Swype was created by Cliff Kushler, the man who developed T9, the widely used predictive text technology. He originally designed T9 as a communications mechanism for people with disabilities who have no hand control. They use an eye tracker, a device that follows the movement of their eyes, to select from nine keys, like those on a mobile phone, in order to spell words.
But users of that system have to wait for the key to light up, indicating that it registers their intent. Kushler and his partner wanted to get rid of that wait, Sheedy said. That's how Swype was born, he said.
They worked on Swype for six years, improving the accuracy of the system before beginning to try to sell it to handset makers recently, Sheedy said.
Swype's technology sounds unique, but faces competition from an interesting company: Nuance, which bought T9 in 2007. Just last week Nuance announced a new technology, T9 Trace, that sounds just like Swype's software. T9 Trace is not yet available on any phones.