Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ⌘+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but it’ll all be in plain english. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.
Humans have been teaching computers how to fill in the blank for decades now, though the most advanced language processing innovations have largely been kept outside of consumers’ purviews; you’ll find warehouse-sized computers that handle language processing for call centers and transcription hubs, but bringing that kind of magic to the average Joe or Jane requires a different kind of company. In 2008, a London-based startup by the name of SwiftKey emerged, and it wasn’t long before it topped Android’s Play Store with a keyboard replacement that instantly made one’s phone entirely more useful. With this month’s introduction of iOS 8, SwiftKey — along with other alternative keyboards — have made their way over to the iPhone demographic. Suddenly, taking the words right out of one’s mouth is all the rage, but what’s it to you?
What’s a Predictive Keyboard?
Thanks to the global explosion of using mobile devices to communicate, the on-screen keyboard has become a recognized object to billions of people. Apple bet boldly that avid users of Windows Mobile and BlackBerry — platforms that leaned on bantam physical keyboards — would adapt to use a virtual keyboard that popped up only when input was necessary, and adapt they did. But transitioning the infamous “hunt-and-peck” routine from one’s desktop to one’s smartphone was still a fairly poor experience.
hundreds of millions of iOS users are now being introduced to the incredible luxury of not having to input every…single…letter…to…finish…a…text…message.
Ambitious companies such as SwiftKey, Fleksy, TextExpander, Swype, and TouchPal realized that there had to be a better way. Generally speaking, smartphone users input the same phrase over and over and over again. Whether it’s “Arrived safely!” or “I love you!” or pecking out your home address for the umpteenth time, there’s an obvious opportunity to make textual input more effective and efficient. Predictive keyboards recognize what letter or letters you’re typing and then offer suggestions for completing the word just above the keyboard itself. The great ones can learn your typing habits from other places (email, Facebook updates, Twitter, etc.), and, when they recognize that you’re hammering away on a familiar refrain, suggest frequently used words so that you can complete your thought in a fraction of the time. I’ve heard some new users exclaim that it is as if these keyboards are reading their minds.
What’s the Big Deal?
Since 2008, and only on the Android platform, SwiftKey alone has saved its users over a trillion keystrokes. Now that Apple has opened the iPhone and iPad up to these alternative keyboards, that figure should grow quite rapidly. You see, Android was always seen as the tinkerer’s platform, while Apple outright refused to enable third-party keyboard options on its iOS platform. With iOS 8, that changes, and hundreds of millions of iOS users are now being introduced to the incredible luxury of not having to input every…single…letter…to…finish…a…text…message.
This goes well beyond saving the masses time and energy, though. As predictive keyboards improve, additional languages are added, and consumers grow used to tag-teaming input with an artificial brain, mobile products as a whole will be in a position to more readily replace standalone laptops and desktops. In emerging nations such as Indonesia, Brazil and India, more people are coming online via a handheld device than a proper computer. For many things, a phone is a perfectly acceptable substitute to a computer, but with a standard virtual keyboard, there’s simply no way to match the words-per-minute clip that’s common on a physical keyboard. As the fabled “next billion” come online, these keyboards will enable mobile users to converse in forums, shape resumes, construct e-commerce portals, and join the Internet economy more easily. It’s impossible to quantify the global impact of that right now, but it doesn’t take a statistician to recognize the gravity.
Now that the world’s two largest mobile operating systems have access to predictive keyboards, the mainstream is waking up to the fact that there are far superior ways to input text than what comes as a default. These keyboards help eliminate the nagging feeling that a reply will have to wait until a user gets to a computer.
What’s Next After Phones?
While phones and tablets will almost certainly become the primary means of non-vocal communication over the next decade, there are plenty of other places where language processing lessons can be applied. The obvious target is the smartwatch. Even Apple has wrestled with the challenge of enabling effective input on a screen no wider than your wrist, and predictive keyboards could very well eliminate the impracticality of typing on one.
There’s also the automobile to consider. Today, in-car navigation input is so slow and cumbersome that most vehicles require you to pull over and throw the car in park before you’re allowed to input a street name. By linking to your list of frequently visited places and adding a predictive engine on top, what used to be a multi-minute process could (theoretically) be completed in just a couple of taps.
Then, there are the more esoteric situations. In the medical realm, for instance, doctors and nurses are beginning to lean on digitized records and tablets to sort through patient histories and the like. When dealing with a repeat patient, it’s obvious that most text could be intelligently filled in from a prior visit — and with that, the opportunity is born. The same could be said for just about any service industry, from automotive repair shops to tailors, where a smarter keyboard could cut down on consumer wait times and improve data processing.
Perhaps the best part of this bright typing future is that you won’t be required to learn anything new to fit in. Just type as if you’re talking, and the 1s and 0s behind the letters will fill in the rest. Flying cars, you’ve just met your match.