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Getting the Input

Getting the Input

Now that Graffiti has been replaced on Palm devices, users are exploring a wide range of textentry methods. What's the best solution for you?

Back in January, Palm announced that it would be dropping its Graffiti handwriting recognition system from all new Palm OS handhelds. In an effort to resolve a long-running dispute with Xerox, the company switched to a new system called Graffiti 2, a version of the Jot application from Communication Intelligence Corporation (www.cic.com).

Graffiti 2 won't require a huge adjustment for most Palm users, and it offers some additional functionality that makes the system easier for new users to adopt. But the change has drawn attention to the wide range of input methods available for PDA users, many of which offer far greater speed and functionality than Graffiti ever did.

Each boasts its own passionately devoted user group, but each has its own strengths and weaknesses. In most cases, there's a direct correlation between the effort required to learn a new system, and the speed of the system itself. What makes each solution stand out in this growing market?

Improved Handwriting Recognition
Jot, the basis for Graffiti 2, is now the standard for a wide range of products, from Palm OS devices to the Sony Ericsson P800. Russ Davis, Communication Intelligence Corporation's VP of product development, says Jot's most significant strength is its natural handwriting recognition. "Jot is simply based on the natural character set that you and I were probably taught in grade school," he says.

For those familiar with the Graffiti system, the application can be set to recognize Graffiti symbols, or it can be set to recognize a more natural character set. And unlike Graffiti, which only recognizes single-stroke characters, Jot allows you to lift your pen while, say, crossing a 't.' This means that a first-time PDA user can pick up the device and enter text immediately, without having to learn a new set of characters.

The tradeoff, Davis admits, is speed. "Between the original Graffiti and Jot, the original Graffiti would have been a bit faster, because it's simply looking for those specific abstract strokes, and it's always looking for a unistroke," he says. "Jot actually waits a brief amount of time after certain strokes to see if you're dotting an 'i' or something like that."

simpliWrite, from Advanced Recognition Technologies (www.artcomp.com), offers a similar set of advantages to Jot. Gabi Artzi, ART's director of sales and business development, says the solution has three key strengths. "It supports natural writing, it supports about 30 languages today with both upper- and lowercase writing, and it's also trainable: you can train it to your own handwriting style," he says.

At the same time, simpliWrite shares Jot's limitations in terms of speed of entry: the natural writing system requires more time to write each character. Jot's dominance in the market is also a challenge for simpliWrite, though Artzi says that's just led ART to focus on different areas. "We are partners with Symbian, so companies that are making Symbian-based phones have access to our software," he says.

Writing With Your Finger
Perhaps the simplest method of text entry for Palm OS devices – no stylus needed – is FatFinger from Avaion (www.avaion.com). Geoff Thompson, Avaion's founder, says the solution came out of his own frustrations with Graffiti. As a traveling consultant, he says, he'd tried out some expense-management applications for the Palm, but had given up on them because entering the data using Graffiti was too difficult.

The FatFinger application turns the entire Palm screen into a keyboard, leaving just enough room to see the part of the application where you're entering text. The keys can be laid out however you like, including alphabetical, QWERTY, and international layouts. To access the application, you simply tap at the bottom of the Graffiti area to bring up the keyboard, then enter text using your finger on the screen.

First-time PDA users are the most obvious target market for FatFinger, but Thompson says other groups have found a use for it as well. "We've been surprised by the number of customers buying this for devices that have their own thumb keyboards," he says. "A lot of people say those little keys are difficult to use, but more important, the FatFinger keyboard is backlit, so you can use it in the dark."

For users with arthritis, FatFinger can also be a perfect solution. "We have a customer who's a minister, and she likes to keep her Palm by her bedside to take down notes in the middle of the night," Thompson says. "She also has arthritis, so the combination of backlight and big keys, along with not having to hold a stylus with arthritic fingers, has been a godsend for her."

Finally, FatFinger can be used as an alternate entry method along with Graffiti, for situations when using a stylus just wouldn't be convenient. "We intentionally left Graffiti in there," Thompson said. "It works with the FatFinger keyboard open, so you can actually use a combination of the two."

For the Pocket PC, a similar screen-based keyboard is available from Spb Software House (www.spbsoftwarehouse.com). The Spb Full Screen Keyboard offers a wide range of keyboard styles, as well as support for languages ranging from Swedish to Russian.

Keyboard Layouts
NOVASIB's Silkyboard (www.silkyboard.com) also requires virtually no training. The application makes use of a QWERTY keyboard decal that you paste over your device's Graffiti entry area. The decal has the added benefit of protecting the Graffiti area from scratches, and allows you to enter text by tapping the QWERTY keys just as you would on a computer keyboard.

For Graffiti users, Silkyboard supports both QWERTY and Graffiti input at the same time: you can switch back and forth between methods from letter to letter. The company says this allows users to reach typing speeds that are twice that of Graffiti, without requiring an additional learning curve to make use of the features.

Still, there are limitations. The QWERTY layout was originally designed for touch-typing on a typewriter keyboard, not for tapping with a stylus. Moving your stylus from one end of the QWERTY layout to another, say, from the 'p' to the 'a' to type 'pad,' can slow you down.

If you're willing to take the time to learn a completely new keyboard layout, Textware Solutions' Fitaly keyboard (www.fitaly.com), available for both the Palm and Pocket PC, offers the fastest text-entry method of all. But it does take a while to get used to it.

Jean Ichbiah, president of Textware Solutions, says the QWERTY layout on a computer keyboard uses a different part of the brain than it does on a PDA: the effort required to find a key by touch is very different from that required to find it on a visual layout. In order to optimize its visual keyboard layout, Textware studied the frequency of transitions between each letter in the alphabet as used in the English language.

The result is the Fitaly keyboard, which places the most commonly used letters at the center, then groups other letters by the frequency with which they're used in combination with each other. The aim is to minimize the amount of travel required from one letter to another when entering text, and the results are striking: a series of videos on the Fitaly Web site shows users reaching speeds of up to 80 words per minute.

It's not for everyone – it does take some effort before you start seeing faster speeds, and many users won't have the patience necessary. Fitaly's user group, Ichbiah says, is somewhat unique. "We have an unusual proportion of people using Macs," he says. "We tend to attract people who like to experiment with new interfaces."

Other benefits of the Fitaly keyboard include phrase prediction, completing a phrase for the user before the entire text has been entered, as well as launcher capabilities, which allow selected applications to be launched directly from the keyboard. "Since the keyboard is always there, you might as well use it to do everything you want," Ichbiah says.

Dialing for Text
Then there's the MessagEase keypad from EXideas (www.exideas.com), which groups all the letters of the alphabet on a 3X3 layout, just like a phone keypad. The nine most common letters are each assigned a key of their own, and all remaining letters are accessed by dragging or double-tapping from one key to another with either your finger or a stylus. On a PDA, MessagEase can reach 50 words per minute.

It's a very efficient input method once you get used to the layout, but more important, it can be used both on the touch pad of a PDA and on the dial pad of a phone. "We were looking for a solution that would work equally well on a PDA and a cellphone, because we believe the cellphone is the platform of the future," says Dr. Saied Nesbit, EXideas' president and CEO.

Nesbit admits that there's a learning curve involved, but he says that most users have been willing to make the necessary effort: a Yahoo! users' group, accessible from EXideas' Web site, now includes over 1,500 members. "A lot of people say it takes a bit to get used to because it's a little different, but once they get used to it, they've found it a lot faster than other systems," Nesbit says.

The true potential of MessagEase, though, lies with smartphones. The more you can do with your phone, the more frustrating it is to enter text using a traditional keypad. And unlike other entry methods, adding MessagEase to a phone won't require any new hardware. "A lot of phones today have interchangeable faceplates, so all they need to provide is a faceplate with our legend on it," Nesbit says.

Still, getting phone manufacturers to take on anything new is a challenge, and Nesbit says that's why he focused initially on PDAs. Once a critical mass of MessagEase users has been developed on PDAs, he says, phone manufacturers might just have to take notice. "Our plan has been to grow a grassroots level of interest, and it's been very successful," he says. "We now have users across the globe."

Exploring Your Options
The market for text entry has changed, and it may never be the same. What started with the typewriter and then the computer keyboard evolved into Graffiti handwriting recognition as PDAs entered the market. Now, with options ranging from Jot's handwriting recognition system to Fitaly's radical new keyboard layout for the stylus, every PDA user can select the solution which best fits his or her needs.

One thing is clear: there's a correlation between the amount of work you're willing to put in and the speed you'll gain as a result. Fitaly and MessagEase may be the fastest of the methods described above, but both require some effort before you can use them comfortably. On the other hand, solutions like Jot and FatFinger can be used immediately, but they won't begin to approach the speeds of the other applications.

PDA users are a diverse bunch, and each solution will appeal to users in its own way. With free trials and downloads available for most of the offerings described above, it's worth taking the time to do some exploring yourself.

More Stories By Jeff Goldman

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology issues. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago, and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.

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