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How Swype plans to redefine touch-screen text

T9 creator's new keyboard for touch-screen devices begins shipping on the Samsung Omnia II this week

Omnia II

Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone might have made the touch screen table stakes, but start-up Swype's ambitions for text input go much further than tapping on a digital qwerty keypad. With Swype, users never lift their finger from the software keyboard, quickly tracing it between the letters they need. Swype's goal is to make the technology ubiquitous, and it is making its debut on the Samsung's Omnia II, a Windows Mobile phone officially announced by Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ, NYSE:VOD) last week and launching on Wednesday. Also on deck, according to reports: Swype on Android, further boosting the typing alternative.

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The "Genius Texting" technology was first introduced to much acclaim at a TechCrunch50 event, co-located with CTIA last Fall. Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Cliff Kushler was also the man behind the immensely successful T9 predictive method of text input during his time at Tegic Communications (now Nuance Communications). T9 is currently available on more than 2.4 million phones worldwide, and Kushler is aiming to make Swype just as ubiquitous.

CEO Mike McSherry, who joined the company last year after co-founding Boost Mobile and, previously, Amp'd Mobile, said the company's goal is to have the Swype keyboard on every device, whether controlled by touch or a remote control. Samsung, too, wants to include the keyboard on all its devices, potentially including future smartphones, in-car navigation devices and TVs, McSherry said. Overall, he said the goal is to have Swype shipped on one billion devices, making Kushler the only person to have technology shipped on more than one billion devices twice.

The technology works with continuous motion across the soft keys. When a user lifts her finger, the word is finished. Even if the path is imprecise, the software guesses the correct word with more than 80% accuracy, according to McSherry. Using a probability algorithm for misspelled words, users can double tap a word to fix it and pull up a list of suggestions from a massive dictionary. They can also opt to only tap on the keypad if they are not ready to change their behavior.

In a CTIA demo, the software keypad worked efficiently and accurately, spelling a word like "quick" with a forgiving traced z motion. Swype has also compared input on the Omnia II to the iPhone, showing it to be faster and more intuitive. But, as a completely new way of inputting text, there is a learning curve associated with the technology.

There are gestures above the keypad for all the actions users can do — including capitalization and special characters — as well as online help and hints for efficiency, but Chief Operating Officer Aaron Sheedy said learning shortcuts will largely be viral as people like to find them on their own. The company also trolls Twitter and Wikipedia for any new SMS lingo or celebrity names and trends to add to its database.

"People will ask what you are doing," Sheedy said about the viral nature of learning Swyping. "Kids get it — just like SMS, they can learn to do as much as they want to."

Swype is making its mobile debut with the Samsung Omnia II, but the company is focused on achieving scale in both the number of devices the technology is on, as well as the number of languages it is available in. Swype is primarily seeking partnerships with original equipment manufacturers, but Sheedy said the company has seen interest from operating systems like Ovi and Windows Mobile, the Omnia II's OS. The technology is not available through application stores as an alternative keyboard yet, but he said the company is being pushed that way.

Swype will be built into more phones coming next year, including Symbian devices and a new Android device in the first quarter. McSherry said the company would love to work with future iPhones. Until then, however, it could give Apple a run for its money.

"The challenge is that people don't know Swype, but [handset makers] are using it as a differentiating feature," McSherry said. "Just one TV commercial will demonstrate what it can do."

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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