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A long time ago, typewriter keyboards were laid out alphabetically, but typists got so good and so fast they jammed the keys. The invention of the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow them down. It's what we all learn in typing classes, but in the age of touch screens does it really make sense anymore? Some app developers are banking on you being interested in something new.
Of course, Apple will never let any of these keyboards substitute for their own on the iOS devices. But that hasn't stopped Developers Exideas from tempting you with their 14 key app, MessagEase. The concept is simple: Single keys will do multiple duty at their edges. With O hugging the center square, it's in the most prominent place, with eight letters arranged around the periphery of that one center key. To type an O, you tap the center of the key in one quick tap. To type the letter B on that key, you tap it and hold slightly before sliding your finger over to the right.
The normal view has a lot of letters in a little space
So when you open up the app, you have a little less than half the screen up top blank white with your blinking cursor. Below that, the 14 keys. Your letters are all arranged in a 3x3 grid with most letters clustered near the center. The O key, as we've said, has 9 of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Eight more surround the O key on keys of their own with most, like the T key, having to share with only one other letter (the Y). A pulls double duty with a C and a V on opposite corners while E at the bottom has two letters and the four most common punctuation marks.
Tapping Space then sliding up gives you tons more options
Other keys include an upward pointing finger key which offers options like get help, go search on Google, tweet, and so on. Below that is a key that reads 123, but tap it and the reading changes to abc and your letter keys have now been replaced with a standard 10-key numeric pad, with mathematical operators and various mathematical formula shortcuts all sharing keys just like the letters. A return key, a space bar, and a delete key round out the 14 total.
Use the finger to send your text out into the wide world
To start a new note, you merely swipe your finger left across the top of the screen and you move into a second "page" of notes. You can edit or access this list of notes through the upward pointing finger key.
If you find it difficult, a typing game helps
We found MessagEase rather difficult to use initially. It took quite a bit of practice to get the sliding of our finger off the key to produce the letter we wanted. The arrangement takes some getting used to and it's important to remember when you start that you will be looking around a lot more than usual, but once you've used the keyboard for a while you can get much faster. We certainly did, though not without more backing up and deleting than we'd have liked.
Will Temple has the same general idea with his FlickKey. Things are a little different as he tries cracking the same nut. How to maximize key size for typing to make it faster while re-envisioning the keyboard layout not tied to QWERTY standards?
Caps lock makes text shouting easy
Six key are all you get when you open this app, though there are a few differences. Your paper is lined and two tiny buttons appear in the upper corners. The notes key takes you backward to a list of notes you've made (though it's populated with instruction files when you first buy it). The other key is a plus button which creates a new note.
Your notes, neatly stashed away
The keys however are made up of one row of three keys, each with 9 letters on them, save the third key which has that most common letter combos, "TH" as a choice. The buttons work essentially the same. Tap the key made up of Q, W, S, A, E, D, Z, X, and C, hitting it right in the center if you want the letter that's in that position on the key or sliding your finger in the direction of an alternate choice on that key.
The three buttons beneath that are made up of various command style keys such as the one with backspace, delete whole line back space, capitalize, and caps lock. Other commands on the other two keys include space bar, tab, period and space, carriage return, quotes, end punctuation, and internal punctuation. Tap the 123 key and all six keys switch to a mathematical arrangement with one key having the nine major digits.
Where's this note going to anyway?
The killer feature of FlickKey sits right above the keypad. A small bar with navigation arrows predicts what word you're typing. While it can be quick and easy to start typing then tap the word that appears, FlickKeys' internal dictionary is very weird, such as when I typed the lower case "u" and all three of the suggested first words it could come up with were u-boat related. Nor was that an isolated incident as "Thi" prompted "Hi" "Ti" "Tho" "Thai" and "Thin" instead of the much more common "This."
U-Boats? What the heck?
Tap the arrow out key when you're done typing and you can send your text as an email, SMS, or a web query. Or you can just trash it. The keys were a bit easier to use and felt more responsive than MessagEase, but we can't shake the feeling that the dictionary needs some work.
TikiNotes from Tikilabs is most similar to FllickKey when you open it up. At the notes list screen, you have a choice up top of tapping the + key to write new notes or "Edit" to trim some of your text flab. The similarities don't stop there as TikiNotes has the same six key structure and the same word suggestion row.
Already being helpful and we haven't even started
What's different is that TikiNotes doesn't have keys you slide your finger across to get to more letters. Instead, you find six keys breaking up the alphabet into six character blocks. The first block from the left in the upper row includes "a b c f e d." The second is "l g h k j i." One of the six keys features the numbers 1-6, the other 7-9 and zero, along with the last two letters of the alphabet. Tap the "abcfed" key and the bottom six keys transform into six keys for those letters, one per key, laid out how they had appeared in the first screen.
Simple enough to understand
So, with two taps necessary to type one letter (three if you want it capped), TikiNotes has to have something awfully good going on with its word prediction. And we're happy to say that it does. We're not sure what kind of contextual algorithms go on under the hood for TikiNotes, but it was killer at guessing what word we wanted next. In the sentence "There are plenty of," TikiNotes was able to guess "good" the moment I hit "g." Deleting "g" and replacing it with "o" gave me "other," "opportunities" and "opportunity" -- all solid choices. Type "p" and "options" the word I wanted got added to the mix.
Send it to the clipboard to take your text with you
Five taps to type a seven letter word, saving me two keystrokes. More if my word choice had been "opportunities." TikiNotes best guess is the first one in line which also appears in a little white text on black box right in your paragraph, ready to tap. In fact, there are choices ready to go based on context before you can even get your next initial letter typed and most of those were just as good at guessing your next choices.
We really wanted this feature to work, but it didn't. Sigh
By far, TikiNotes word suggestions were the best, actually offering choices that make sense and were likely to be helpful. What may seem initially like more typing based on the key arrangements turns out to be very, very fast indeed. And we were pleased to say that we were able to pick up the key arrangements very quickly.
The Last Word
We haven't seen the end of QWERTY by any stretch of the imagination. It's far too familiar a layout for anyone to believe that it could someday be gone, but there is definitely room among touch screen phones for something that might be better suited to the ergonomics of our pocket-sized computers. Until such keyboard options are allowed to be chosen as defaults, we can't see any one of them really taking off.
Without better responsiveness, MessagEase will just frustrate most users going for speed when they have to slide their finger so specifically. FlickKey had some of the most responsive reactions to what we were typing, but a good predictive engine is something an app like this completely depends on -- and it just isn't there. TikiNotes' extra taps might seem an unlikely winner, but we found that we could fly through quick messages letting its predictions set the pace. Quick, responsive, intuitive, TikiNotes is our favorite of the week.