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May 28, 2009

“I am so done with keyboards, I think they’re dumb.”

Categories Emerging Ideas 

I made the claim above during a recent conversation with a friend about the possibility of a future Apple tablet computer. That was a bit of an overstatement. But what I really mean, is the way keyboards are used today is dumb and needs to change. For instance, when I type on my iPhone I don’t always need to type the whole word, it does a decent job of auto-completing. Also, I can mash the letter’s wildly and it will figure out what I meant to type with amazing accuracy. So why is it that with a full-blown computer, and a huge keyboard I have to type E-V-E-R-Y single letter of every word with almost no forgiveness for typos? It just makes no sense. Three ways that text entry can smarten up are text expansion, typo correction and auto completion. And these methods could also be applied to non-keyboard text input methods, like handwriting recognition.

Text Expansion

David Pogue’s recent article on Text expanding applications, is what got me thinking about this issue.  Text Expansion applications run in the background and instantly covert shorts strings of text into longer ones to save you time.  For instance, you could use such an app to automatically replace “tsdt” with “They Should Do That” in any program.  Basically, if you find yourself using the same phrases or words all the time these programs are a huge time saver.

Typo Correction

Microsoft Word already does some automatic typo correction, but ultimately it’s just not enough.  For instance, Microsoft word already substitutes some misspellings with matches from the dictionary.  For instance, try typing “correctoin” in Word and it should be converted to “correction” so fast you probably didn’t even notice.  However, it’s still not nearly far reaching enough, for instance Word doesn’t auto-correct “correctiom” even though it’s just one letter off and N and M are right next to each other just like I and O.  Also, this feature is only works in Microsoft word and really typo correction needs to be at an OS level so it can work in all the apps you need it to.  Autohotkey offers a really good auto correction scripts which I am currently experimenting with.

Auto Completion

It’s always baffled me that Microsoft Word lacks adaptive automatic text completion.  Microsoft Excel has text completion for entering data in columns and it’s super useful.  Microsoft Visual Studio has text completion that really speeds up coding.  And of course Microsoft Internet Explorer has text completion for entering URLs.  Yet Microsoft Word offers only limited text completion, for instance, if you begin to type a date, Word will complete the rest.  But this isn’t really adaptive text completion like Excel does and it only applies to certain types of very standardized text input.  True adaptive text completion would learn from what you type and predict the ends of words after just a few keystrokes.  For instance, you’re writing a document in which you will use the word “ecommerce” over and over.  After a few repetitions, when you starting to type “ecom” the app would offer “ecommerce.”  I don’t really mean to pick on MS Word, I’m just pointing out that text completion works well in other applications and I find it strange that the application most people type a lot in doesn’t offer it.  Really all these typing enhancements need to be on an OS level not an application level.

Portability and Standardization

While all these text-input enhancements (text expansion, automatic typo correction, automatic text completion) are great; they really need to be at an OS level and standardized.  While it’s great that Word offers AutoCorrection, which you can use to do text expansion, it’s limited to just Word.  But if all these features are in at the OS level such enhancements can operate in any app you need them to. 

Additionally, it would be ideal if the data stored to make these enhancement work were in a standardized format that could easily be ported (and synchronized) across multiple computers and devices.  For instance, if I create a bunch of useful text expansion strings, it’d like to be able to easily move them to my mobile phone or another device.

Why does this matter?

Some of you might be wondering if any of this is even necessary.  Obviously, people have been typing out whole words on keyboards for over a century.  There are two main reasons why this matters.  First, such enhancements will make text entry quicker, easier, and more accurate.  Imagine responding to a mountain of e-mails in much less time than it takes you now, or writing a lengthy document without having to type the same words over and over.  The second reason has to do with mobile devices.  Improving the way we enter text on our computing devices will have huge benefits to portable computers and other mobile devices by making on-screen keyboards, tiny keyboards, and even handwriting recognition competitive alternatives to full size keyboards.  Also by eliminating the need for a full size keyboard new possibilities in design and form-factor for mobile devices are possible.

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