New Android Keyboards Swallow Your Words

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The way millions of smartphone users will reprogram their thumb-typing habits for each new device is a remarkable achievement. But before we celebrate yet another victory for computers in their slow conquest of humanity, can't onscreen keyboards do a better job of learning from us?

Two Android developers have been working on that. Both SwiftKey and Swype's latest apps can scan your social-media, text-messaging and Gmail output to get a better sense of how you write.

SwiftKey 3, a $3.99 release in tablet and phone versions (seen on the lower phone in the photo above), goes farther down that road. If you grant it permission, it will scan your Facebook and Twitter identities, read your Gmail, subscribe to your blog's RSS feed and look over your outgoing text messages to learn your style.

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I think I am okay with a program looking over my shoulder like that (note that this London firm complies with EU privacy regulations that are stricter than U.S. law). But I'm less happy with SwiftKey requesting both read and write access to services like Twitter; read-only permission would be simpler and safer.

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This personalization has allowed SwiftKey to auto-complete words way too esoteric ("skeuomorphism," anyone?) for the standard Android keyboard. But its habit of automatically adding a space after a comma saves too little effort for the confusion it causes, and typing abbreviations with periods like "L.A." is borderline impossible unless you add in that punctuation later on.

Swype has already won fans for this clever shortcut: You trace a path over the letters you want to type, allowing for exceedingly fast input of even long words. But that approach breaks down if Swype's dictionary lacks your desired vocabulary.

The current beta (on the upper phone above) aims to fix that with Swype Connect. With permission, it scans the names of your Facebook friends, your Twitter updates and the handles of people you follow there, your Gmail and your outgoing texts. It won't learn as much about you as Swype SwiftKey, but it also requires less faith in its Seattle-based developers.

Unfortunately, it has its own auto-correct annoyances: Automatically inserting a space after a Twitter username means you can't append a comma or an apostrophe without moving the cursor back by hand.

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And because Swype only sells its software to phone vendors, the general public is limited to downloading a beta version that will expire in about six months. This perpetual-beta approach can inflict mistakes that shouldn't make it to "finished" software; for instance, an earlier beta flipped from English to Spanish with one tap.

Both of these apps demand regular re-training, or the snapshots they took of your Twitter or Facebook activity will grow stale. And since Google's browser software seems to handle text slightly different from other apps, you lose some of their auto-correction there.

If your device uses Google's standard keyboard (see, for instance, the Galaxy Nexus phone and the Nexus 7 tablet), you can sit out these apps. But if your phone's vendor wasted its money on an inferior substitute (such as the horrible keyboard on Samsung's Galaxy S III), you need this help. Swype can accelerate your typing more, while SwiftKey should represent an easier transition.

And yes, you will need to trust each program with more of your data. But haven't you long since welcomed our robot overlords?

Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery