SMS, word entry killer app goes hunting for Nokia

Listen to Howard, people, you know he makes sense...

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Howard Gutowitz, CEO of Eatoni Ergonomics, is that dangerous character, a Man with a Mission. For starters he's built a better way to do SMS, and is battering at the doors of the major mobile phone companies trying to attract their attention. But the Mission is broader (and simpler) than that, because if you think of search as being the key that unlocks the internet then obviously you can't unlock it for mobile devices without it being simple and easy for people to type in words. Now, just type http://www.theregister.co.uk into your Nokia. Exactly.

Which is one of the many points Howard puts forward that are difficult to argue with. Swinging through London last week he hooked up with the Reg, and made them forcefully, after which we bitched to one another about how difficult it is for startups to get attention/funds these days.

The demo of Eatoni's two products, Letterwise and Wordwise, is simple enough. Gutowitz totes around a numeric keypad of the full-travel, IBM-clacky variety that's been labelled with the correct letters and shift keys, but that is otherwise 'normal.' This takes you into intriguing territory because yes indeed, it is pretty simple to use, get the hang of and even tap in URLs with, to the extent that you start to wonder about the form factor of entry devices, or about how you might be able to get by without a qwerty. Mobile phones are the shape they are because you stick them to the side of your head and talk into them, and they're the size they are largely through the mobile phone industry's current obsession with style. But this is sub-optimal for a type-in-words device. People do SMS on mobile phone handsets not because it's easy, but because it's possible, and actually if you're doing a handset for the SMS (or indeed the internet) market, then you wouldn't do it that way.

Nokia hasn't done it that way with the 5510, which it nervously describes as looking weird (yup...), while Ericsson had a crack with an SMS extension keyboard a couple of years back. But full keyboards surely aren't the way to go for pocket devices. Gutowitz reckons that phones have got to get bigger and keypads better, but yes, he concedes with some regret, devices the heft of numeric keypads aren't go to play in the mass market any time soon.

Evolutionary steps, however, are a different matter. Something mobile phone-ish with a keypad designed more from the point of view of text entry, maybe youth-oriented versions taking this even more into account... Essentially, he'll take what he can get on the road to getting his system universally accepted.

How does it work? Both products use a standard mobile phone layout keyboard, so needn't change form factor at all, although the keys will need to be appropriately labelled. Letterwise is a predictive text entry system, and Wordwise is a more advanced product more likely to appeal to touch typists, and capable of greater speed.

You can get a better handle on how they work if you understand what they're not. So, although Letterwise feels similar to the multitap systems common on mobile phones, where you press the key repeatedly in order to get the correct letter, Letterwise takes a stab at guessing the letter that should come next. So it'll kick off a word with the most common letter obtained via the key you press, and get more accurate as the word continues. If it gets the letter wrong (most commonly at the start of the word), then you countermand it by pressing the designated 'Eatoni' key, which The Register feels should be labelled the Nope key, but which currently isn't.

What's happening here is that Eatoni is using predictive smarts, whereas multitap is simply using brute force. Your brute force, phone manufacturer's cost saving. Dictionary-based systems such as T9 are the more upmarket rivals, but Eatoni claims a 15 fold advantage in terms of queries and lookup errors over T9, and more crucially, dictionary-based systems take up an awful lot more space, meaning more cost for the phone manufacturers, and less likelihood of them becoming ubiquitous. Letterwise, on the other hand, uses a scalable database that can fit into a few kilobytes, although accuracy is better, the more storage there is. The database itself is not a dictionary, but a language-specific prediction system, and the most common letters used in English on the phone keypad are cehlnsty, since you ask. Frequencies differ from language to language, and Eatoni offers numerous different versions, including Latin. Why Latin? Because we could, apparently.

The system is also not a word guessing system, nor is it a chording system (pressing multiple keys to get letters) along the lines of the Microwriter (which first didn't catch the market's eye a whole 20 years ago now).

The system works, takes up minimal space, requires minimal hardware changes from the manufacturers, but Gutowitz is having trouble getting mindshare from them. They have a system in multitap that people will use because there isn't anything else, and they have better, more expensive ones in the shape of dictionary-based systems, but until such time as they grasp that they haven't really got a mechanism for easily typing in a url or searching for a word, they'll quite likely think what they've got is good enough to be getting on with.

At the moment, Eatoni has deals mainly with DECT manufacturers, and with Benq (formerly Acer), which will be shipping Letterwise-enabled GSM and CDMA phones. Gutowitz is hopeful that users of SMS over DECT cordless will start some kind of groundswell, and that it will slowly become apparent to the cellular manufacturers that somebody has indeed built a better input system. And he's got a stash of of background (go here for light reading), and even a video of Finnish girls complaining about how hard current SMS systems are to use. Now, if Nokia would just start answering his emails... ®

Related stories:
Text messaging poised for rollout via DECT, land lines
Sending out an SMS just got a lot quicker

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