In search of common standards for text input

By January 14, 2013 3 Comments

Like many people these days and, I suspect just about everybody in the future, I now use a range of computing devices to do email, browse the web, and access the various web services I use. I’m typing this post on my laptop (still far and away the best device for blogging), I do email (and most anything else now) on the move on my Nexus 4, and I have an Android tab in my bedroom and iPads in my kitchen and living room which I use when I’m in those rooms. This multi-device world has come about in the years since Apple released the iPad and I love it.

What is not so great is the lack of common standards for text input, something I’ve been noticing more and more since I got the latest version of Android and Gesture Typing.

Laptops and desktops all use QWERTY keyboards, but the situation is more difficult on phones and tablets. This is not a new problem and there has been continual, if slow innovation, in mobile text input since we started texting in earnest in the 1990s. Perhaps the most notable advances before recent times were T9 Predictive Text and small on-device keyboards from RIM/Blackberry. The good news is that the pace of change has been increasing recently with touchscreens, predictive typing in iOS, apps like Swiftkey and Swype, and now Gesture Typing in Android 4.2.

In parallel with innovations in small screen typing entrepreneurs and large corporations the world over have been working on speech recognition and voice based input. I constantly experiment with Siri and other voice interfaces on all my devices and over the last couple of years I would say the quality has gotten to the point where they are useful in some circumstances, but still some way from becoming the primary input mechanism. That said, I think that will come in time, although note I say ‘primary’ – voice will never work for all use cases and touch based interfaces will remain on devices until they can connect direct to our minds…

All this change is creating a need for a common input standard across all devices. Systems like iOS’s predictive typing , and Swiftkey take a bit of getting used to and it is annoying to have to think about which device you using and which tricks and shortcuts are going to work. At this point the problem of varying text input interfaces is only a problem for early adopters and people who make heavy use of multiple devices to send emails, or write blogs or other documents – i.e. me but not too many others, but over time it will become a mass market problem.

Firstly, as the price of devices drops and drops it will become commonplace for people to have tablets in every room (and for most people not all of them will be Apple devices) and secondly the voice interfaces are going to extend beyond our phones and tablets to our televisions, cars, and pretty much everything else. It will be too much for most people to remember to speak one way when talking to their phone and another when talking to their television.

I think this implies we are headed towards a world where users have at least the option of using one input mechanism across all devices, regardless of size, function, connectivity, or OS. In the short to medium term that could be a world where input mechanism is one of the biggest drivers of device choice, which will make controlling the input of high strategic importance. That could well mean that Apple, Google (Android) and Amazon settle on their own standards and users have to live with fragmentation, or it could mean that a third party emerges which works across all platforms. I hope it’s the latter.

In the longer term I think the underlying hardware and OS will become commoditised and people will only care about the input mechanism. If you interact with the device in the same way the hardware and software become much less important.

This post has been purely about text input, but the same arguments can be made about personal assistants like Apple’s Siri.