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iPhone Keyboard and How to Use It?

The other day I was chatting with a friend and he was taking notes about some things using his iPhone

The other day I was chatting with a friend and he was taking notes about some things using his iPhone. I commented on how unbelievably fast it seemed he was able to type using the keyboard. Up until recently, I've been "OK" at using the keyboard but I never really considered the iPhone as a device on which I could take notes - I have been so abused by smartphone keyboards (virtual and physical) that I just assume that the typing experience is going to suck.

This is saying something, considering my last SmartPhone was a PPC 6700, which has a full, backlit, slide-out keyboard that has real tactile feedback and a decent "push" required to get each key to go down.. So you'd think that would have been a really good typing experience on a phone. The problem is that it sucked. If you sausage-finger two keys, you're hosed. Half the time neither key registers, and the other half you end up doing something terrible to your text. The likelihood of me sausage-fingering a line of text is quite high, for my thumbs are like massive bratwurst being slammed randomly against the glass of the iPhone.

This is where experience and interaction design comes in. If you mis-spell a word in Microsoft Word, you'll get a red underline and it will even auto-correct some things for you like changing "teh" to "the" for you automatically. This is pretty handy, but it's only handy if you're typing on a full-sized keyboard. What Apple seems to have realized is that the kind of typos that occur on a virtual (small) keyboard are a little different than the kinds of typos that occurr on a big keyboard, though there is some overlap.

Here's a priceless example. When trying to type as fast as I possibly could on the iPhone keyboard, I typed frwaling. Microsoft word has no freaking clue what the hell a frwaling is. It knows that it's wrong and when you right-click that word in MS Word, it won't give you any useful or relevant suggestions. But, when you type this thing on the iPhone, and then you just hit space and keep on typing, it will know that you were trying to type freaking. How does it know that? Because instead of using a dictionary to recommend words, it's actually using relative key positions to determine what it thinks you might have been trying to type. In other words, when you type frwaling, the iPhone goes through it's dictionary in relative key position order, not dictionary order and figures out that while frwaling is complete nonsense, it happens to be key order close to another word, freaking. If you try this in MS word, you'll get recommendations for your typo: brawling, crawling, drawling, etc. The iPhone's magic typo correction knows that you probably meant "freaking" because frwaling makes no sense, but the "e" is right next to the "w" and there's a high probability that you sausage fingered the w when you mean to hit "e". Additionally, it knows that the l is right next to "k", and when it checks both of those out, it finds a real word.

I figure its like the difference between doing a blind keyword search through data and using Google to get revelance-ranked search results.  With MS Word and pretty much any other desktop spell-checking program, you're getting blind keyword matches. With the iPhone, you're getting the word that is most relevant to what you're doing. The iPhone knows the layout of your keyboard and can seed dictionary lookups with potential matches from nearby keystrokes.

So anyway, now that I'm done harping on how cool the spell check technology is, I put my money where my mouth is. On my way home from that meeting I sat on the train for roughly 45 minutes... typing into the Notes application on the iPhone. I was jotting plot notes for a fantasy novel. I've got tons of notes sitting in there right now, all extremely useful, extremely readable, with very few actual typos.

The only thing that I dislike about the word suggestion is when you type a fictional name into the keyboard that might be nearby (in terms of keystrokes) to some real word, it's a break in my workflow to reach a finger up and hit the tiny "X" to cancel that word substitution.

Anyway, I've been proven wrong. There actually is a mobile keyboard that is so good at what it does that I can actually use it, completely with my sausage fingers and all.

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More Stories By Kevin Hoffman

Kevin Hoffman, editor-in-chief of SYS-CON's iPhone Developer's Journal, has been programming since he was 10 and has written everything from DOS shareware to n-tier, enterprise web applications in VB, C++, Delphi, and C. Hoffman is coauthor of Professional .NET Framework (Wrox Press) and co-author with Robert Foster of Microsoft SharePoint 2007 Development Unleashed. He authors The .NET Addict's Blog at .NET Developer's Journal.

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