When the popular Android keyboard software SwiftKey went free-to-download a few weeks ago, I figured I’d give it a shot. Many of my friends used it and had raved about how well its predictive text worked and how generally nice it was to use. At first brush I wasn’t really sure what it offered over and above the default Samsung keyboard, but I assumed it must be something worthwhile if so many people were raving about it.
Historically I haven’t used predictive text very much. I used it for a short while on my first phone, back in the days when phones had numerical keyboards and you had to type by pressing each key one to three times to form a single letter, because text-speak was never an option for me and I figured it would make things easier, but soon enough I got fast enough with my keypad that I didn’t need it anymore and turned it off. And a little while after that I got my first Blackberry, after which I proceeded to get Blackberries exclusively until I sold out this year and bought a Samsung touch-screen phone partly out of fear of being left behind, partly out of disappointment with BlackBerry’s dismal performance and bad recent decisions, and mostly because my latest BlackBerry conked out one day and refused to ever turn on again.
But it’s different on a touch screen. With a physical keyboard one can rapidly develop the muscle memory to type quickly and dexterously, working by touch and not sight. With a smooth pane of glass where a finger on a single spot has a highly variable effect and feels no different from any other single spot it’s not so easy. So predictive text, preferably in conjunction with sliding continuous input, becomes more-or-less essential.
The Samsung keyboard has this built in, and as initially embarrassed as I was by the idea of laying aside my proud deliberate typing tradition to surrender my expression to predictive text, I found it to be quite accurate and generally managed to type the words I was looking for, even if I occasionally had to tap them in letter by letter because I was making a pun or using a technical term. So my reasoning behind trying SwiftKey was that if the Samsung keyboard was as good as I had found it to be, a specialised app must be a whole lot better.
People love SwiftKey because it figures out how you speak and then makes suggestions in accordance with that. You can actually type nothing and just hit the words above the keyboard letters to get what I have to assume is your most probable sentence based on your previous communications. Mine is apparently “I am a beautiful person” which I’m sure says great things about my self esteem.
But SwiftKey is always so very sure of your intention that it has a nasty habit of auto-incorrecting words you haven’t used before, even if you’ve spent the last three seconds (an eternity in typing time) meticulously tapping it out with the correct cases and/or apostrophes and other special characters. With Samsung keyboard, if I type “Sghvfgv”, it leaves it as “Sghvfgv”, but SwiftKey changes it to “Shaggy” and doesn’t even have the courtesy to back away from this assumption when I press backspace. What if I wanted to type Sghvfgv, SwiftKey? What if that was my dear departed aunt’s name and I ended up sending out condolence messages about that guy from Scooby Doo instead of her?
Maybe I haven’t given SwiftKey enough time to learn my speech patterns – I have only been using it for a few weeks compared to my Samsung keyboard’s half-year or so after all, and it takes time to for these sorts of programs to really learn anything. But I get the feeling that SwiftKey doesn’t want to learn about my typing habits and adapt itself to them so much as it wants to narrow my habits down by making it so hard for me to add new words that I just settle for the ease of using the ones already there and in a few months proclaim how amazing it is that SwiftKey can so accurately predict the two and a half sentences I’m still able to type. It’s downright Orwellian.
The typical bloggy thing to do after typing that last sentence would be to launch into a tirade about the decline of the use of language in today’s decadent and illiterate society.
I’d paint myself and my reader as brave stragglers in a small, desperate contingent of thoughtful, erudite writerly types in a world full of filthy commoners who just don’t care enough about the art of the written word to be concerned about this troubling popular smartphone app and what it’s obviously leading up to.
I’d take the “Orwellian” thing further and maybe make a cheeky screenshot of the SwiftKey keyboard with just three words in the top bar – Yes, Yes, Yes.
And then I’d end the post with a rallying call to action, urging all thinking people to go out and uninstall SwiftKey on every phone they can get their hands on, probably in more one sentence paragraphs ending in exclamation marks than necessary.
But that’s not what I’m doing here, because it’s alarmist, and it’s overblown, and it conflates my personal smartphone keyboard needs with the personal smartphone keyboard needs of any right-thinking individual. I’m certain there are plenty of great folks out there who are completely happy to use SwiftKey’s suggested word instead of the one they originally had in mind and who often tap complete the same exact sentence, and while it’s tempting to write a few paragraphs about how that sort of thing is turning people into simplified chatbot versions of themselves, I’d choose the functional form letter “How are you?” over the raw humanity presumably reflected by “hw re u” any day.
It’s just not for me. I’m a deliberate typist, I like to use new words and unusual words and even non-words with as little effort as possible, and I’d rather my have my keyboard predict less of my text than try to predict more of it better – it’s a little depressing to be predictable to a mere machine.
So it looks like I’ll be heading back to the less presumptuous Samsung keyboard. And it’s a shame too, because I’ve come to much prefer both the look and some of the small touches present in SwiftKey to my old Samsung keyboard – chiefly the way you can hold down many of the letter keys to use common symbols and the way that because of that the symbol menu next to the space bar can contain only a few very common punctuation marks and closes itself automatically after you’ve chosen one.
Now, as much as I’ve demonised poor old SwiftKey, the only thing I’d actually need it to do in order for me to give it a second chance is this: use its purportedly amazing prediction engine when I’m giving continuous input – where that makes sense – and leave my text the hell alone when I’m typing it in manually, because obviously I want my literal input if I’m keying in one character at a time and continuous input is enabled. If that were just a setting I could set somewhere, I’d come back in an instant.
EDIT: I’ve been informed that literal input is always the leftmost suggestion in the bar above the keyboard in SwiftKey, so it’s not quite as impossible to put in new words as I’ve made out. I honestly didn’t notice that, and that’s at least partially because it’s not very noticeable – SwiftKey could at least trust my input enough to give it the middle word slot that gets the most attention. And you still have to actually tap the leftmost word to let the app know that, contrary its general profile of the user, you’re not just bashing random keys and hoping for the best.
On an unrelated note, I’ve just added random taglines to
the front page of this website every page of this website, now that I’ve changed the theme from the default Casper to the lovely Landscape. Press refresh a few times for some light amusement.