Katherine Boehret

Virtual Keyboard Makes Smudges a Must

Do you love your smartphone but hate its on-screen keyboard?

From an efficiency perspective, virtual keyboards offer lots of advantages like shortcut buttons that appear when you need them (think of a “.com” button that shows up while typing an email address). They rotate depending on whether the phone is held vertically or horizontally. And they disappear when not in use, doubling the screen size for better viewing and touch gestures.

But for some people, the tactile feedback of a physical keyboard is more comfortable and reassuring. I’m familiar enough with my BlackBerry keys that I can often type using my thumbs without looking down, much like touch typing at a computer. With a virtual keyboard, you have to keep your eyes on the screen. And for some people, walking and typing with an on-screen keys produces a lot of typos because of jerky movements.

What if your on-screen typing was faster and more enjoyable? Thanks to a smart keyboard called Swype, your virtual keyboard can do something your smartphone number pad can’t do: Let you type without lifting a finger. Swype (swypeinc.com) allows you to trace a word out on the keyboard in one continuous swiping motion, from one letter to the next. Raising a finger off the screen after the last letter of each word starts a new word. Predictive technology guesses what word you’re trying to spell according to what would make the most sense. Special swiping gestures capitalize words and add punctuation. Though using Swype requires an adjustment period, typing with it feels more fun and game-like than tapping out individual letters on a glass screen. For people who don’t like typing with an on-screen keyboard, it’s a viable solution.

Swype is currently preloaded on 10 devices in the U.S., including smartphones from all four major carriers. A Swype Inc. representative says Swype will launch on a few tablets running Google’s (GOOG) Android operating system by the end of this year. It comes in keyboards for 35 languages, and the company will launch Chinese and Korean versions before the end of this year. In December, Swype launched for the first time as the default, or main, keyboard on Samsung’s Omnia II, and has since been sold as the default on five other devices, including Samsung’s Vibrant. If set as the default keyboard, a Swype demonstration video plays when smartphones are first turned on so people know how to use it.

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Swype
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Typing the word ‘quick’ on the Swype on-screen keyboard involves one continuous, Z-like swipe, starting with the letter ‘q’ and ending with the letter ‘k.’

Swype isn’t currently available on the iPhone and iPad. A Swype representative says the company has been in talks with Apple but it has had no indication from Apple (AAPL) whether the keyboard will be incorporated into the devices.

An Apple spokeswoman declined comment. An app similar to Swype, called ShapeWriter (www.shapewriter.com) works on Apple’s iPhone, but only as a standalone app. and not as a built-in keyboard. This means that text documents must be written in the ShapeWriter app, then exported for use in other programs.

I’ve been using Swype on a Motorola (MOT) Droid X, which costs $200 after a $100 mail-in rebate and with a two year Verizon contract. Swype comes preloaded on this smartphone, but isn’t the default keyboard. In order to switch to Swype I had to hold my finger down in a text entry box, select “Input Method” and choose Swype. This process won’t be easily found by the average user.

Some shortcuts on Swype aren’t obvious, so a tutorial video that highlights these functions can be launched by holding down the keyboard’s Swype key.

For example, capitalizing a word like “Katie” could be done the old-fashioned way by tapping “Shift” and “k” (all Swype keys also work with taps, like regular on-screen keyboards). But it was more fun to use the Swype swiping method to type “Katie.” I placed my finger on the “k” then swiped up above the keyboard (Swype’s gesture for a single-letter capitalization) before moving my finger back down to the keyboard and continuing the rest of the word by tracing my finger from “a” to “t” to “i” and then to “e.”

My finger was on the glass screen the whole time and lines appeared on the keyboard where my finger had gone, like finger trails of dust. A Swype engineer calls these trace paths.

Capitalizing entire words or acronyms like “WSJ” works by swiping a finger up above the keyboard and drawing a loop anytime while you’re typing a word. If a word has a double letter, like “pull,” simply let your finger linger a little longer on the “l” key, indicating the recurring letter. I was shocked by how accurately this particular gesture worked.

Touching the cursor to any word then moving a finger from the Swype key to Shift pulls up a menu of all capitalization options for that word (all lowercase, all capitalized or first letter capitalized). I selected one to quickly convert the whole word to that style.

Some people complain that Android devices don’t give people an easy way of moving the cursor, so a gesture in the Swype keyboard—swiping from the Swype key to the Symbol key—pulls up a directional menu with cursor options like up, down, left and right.

Certain words make sense to the keyboard according to the design that was traced and what letters logically followed one another. One such example is “49ers”: I dragged my finger from one key to the next and was surprised to see this rarely used word appear. And texting lexicon like “l8er” (later) and “4ever” (forever) showed up the same way.

You can teach Swype to learn your most-used words by tracing the word once and hitting the space key, as long as this combination is all letters or all numbers. If the word has an alphanumeric combination, like myname@gmail.com, it must be manually added to the Swype dictionary. I did this by highlighting the word (in this case an email address), then hitting the Swype key.

Punctuation was a little tricky since I’m used to double tapping on the iPhone or BlackBerry space bar key to insert a period at the end of a sentence. To add a period with Swype, you drag a finger from the period key to the space bar key. The same is true for other punctuation, like comma and space; exclamation point and space; or a question mark and space.

Like all on-screen keyboards, Swype takes some adjustment, but typing can be more accurate, feels faster—and more entertaining—the more you use it.

Email Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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