Vivek Haldar

Text Input: The Next Frontier

The next big frontier for mobile devices is heavy-duty text input. As Tim Bray puts it:

Tablets and handsets can displace computers as play and reading devices, but they really can’t become dominant as work tools until we have a better solution for high-speed low-friction text input. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to see dramatic progress in this area; it’s so obviously the number-one usability barrier for everything that isn’t badged as a “computer”.

Also, Matt Cutts, from way back in 2009:

> By the way, if anyone figures out how to lick the problem of satisfactory output/input, e.g. heads-up displays or retinal lasers and a virtual keyboard or something with as high a bandwidth as normal typing (and they will), your computer will migrate into your phone. Solving the input/output problem is one of the most important problems for the next decade. Witness the efforts that companies have put into pen-based computing and voice recognition, for example.

I don’t pretend to have any solutions, but here are some observations.

This is not just a factor that separates devices, but also cleaves the market — into those who regularly input large amounts of text, and those who rarely do so. Most people get by just fine inputting short fragments of text, and consuming large amounts of it. In fact, almost every mobile device is targeted exactly to this market. Another distinction is the context in which the text input is done. Almost everybody has to wrangle large amounts of text for work, where they use the regular tools (keyboards attached to large computers). But only a vanishingly small fraction of people care about inputting more than short text fragments outside work, and that’s when they use their mobile devices.

Voice recognition is getting pretty good, at least on powerful computers. I regularly use Dragon Dictate, and it works pretty well on my laptop. (They also have a mobile offering, but I haven’t used it, so not sure how good it is compared to the desktop offering.) The handwriting recognition on Windows Tablet PCs was always spot on for me. I would enter handwritten notes, and they could be searched as regular text. Each has it’s downsides. I wouldn’t want to dictate an email into my phone in a crowded space. And most mobile devices are too small to serve as a good handwriting surface.

But their biggest problem is that there’s a long tail of fine-grained text surgery that they simply cannot deal with. I’m not talking about just source code, but even formatting regular text and making small adjustments — moving around words, capitalizing, and the other small motions that go into crafting a sentence just so. And this is where we still revert to keyboards. The keyboard is still the escape hatch.