Will 8pen Bring About a Revolution in Software-based Character Input? Unlikely [Opinion]


In today’s technology-driven society, kids are growing up learning how to use technology to their advantage and adults are incorporating more of it into their lives. Like anything, once you get used to a certain standard, it’s hard to (or, more accurately, hard to want to) adopt anything else. More than anything, the QWERTY layout for English-speaking typists has proven to be quick to learn, easy to remember, and very efficient for character input. (And not because that’s how or why it was designed.)

The layout first appeared on typewriters where it was necessary for certain letters’ typebars to be as far from each other as they could be to be sure keys don’t accidentally strike each other. (These certain letters were ones used most often next to each other in a word, which is why the layout is top-heavy with vowels and bottom-heavy with consonants.)

But you don’t care about all of that. You care about the fact that it translates to a remarkable typing experience and you’ve never known anything outside of it. Not even Dvorak’s supposedly speedier layout could get you away from QWERTY.

That’s why I approach 8pen – a new software “keyboard” for mobile phones – with hesitation. (It’s more accurate to call it an input mechanism, than anything.) Go ahead and watch the video above to get an idea of what 8pen is all about and how it works. I’m not trying to say these folks haven’t created something worth trying – nor am I saying it isn’t interesting or original – but I just don’t think many people will stray too far from their comfort zones.

“What about T9,” you ask. T9 was invented because – at that point in time – there’d been no other choice on a device without a full set of keys. Most mobile phones in those days came with 10-number keypads while only the top-tier devices – namely PDAs – were graced with a full QWERTY keyboard. And the idea behind T9 and why it was needed differs greatly between a jump from QWERTY to something like 8pen.

Now that we have phones with large touchscreens and even low-end offerings with physical keyboards, the need to reinvent the wheel is not there. Even a phone whose screen isn’t large enough to comfortably type on with a software QWERTY keypad will allow you to revert back to an on-screen T9 experience, and that’s still good enough for a lot of people. (And I won’t even mention the more-than-adequate half-QWERTY that’s become quite the popular accommodation.)


And then we have Swype, which is gaining popularity each and every day. “Swype changes the fundamentals, doesn’t it?” No, Swype simply builds on an already-established norm. Combining the familiarity of QWERTY with the seemingly mind-reading nature of T9’s prediction system and the human’s natural intuition desire to swipe back and forth on a touchscreen, Swype starts feeling more like a natural extension of the software QWERTY experience.

BlindType has gained a lot of recognition lately, too, but not because it changes the fundamentals: it simply makes it easier to type on a layout we already know and love. That’s the single biggest thing people love about these two offerings. Is 8pen DOA? No. I think it will garner a lot of attention simply because of how unique it is, and a lot of people might fall in love with it. (Even some of the oddest of oddities attract fans.) But don’t expect carriers and manufacturers to rush to their table to strike up deals to include this on phones.

Having said all of that, I’m still excited to at least try 8pen out when it launches for Android 2.2 devices tomorrow (1.6+ support coming soon.) Who knows? I might even fall in love with it, but I wouldn’t count on it trumping my love for the comfortable typing experience on a layout I’ve grown up using that hasn’t posed any problems for me thus far.

Quentyn Kennemer
The "Google Phone" sounded too awesome to pass up, so I bought a G1. The rest is history. And yes, I know my name isn't Wilson.

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  1. Good article, i was frustrated with swype when i first used it. Now I love it.

    Maybe the same thing will happen to 8pen.

  2. ‘to enter g simply press in the centre, the up, then rotate clockwise 3 sectors…`

    screw that. give me a keyboard and i’ll press g. similarly, to get e i’ll press e. n for n. and so on. who the hell comes up with this sort of crap? better download this now if you want it, because it’s going nowhere.

  3. The problem with alternative IMEs is that there’s a learning curve unless that IME borrows from something the user is already familiar with – typing on a computer keyboard or writing on a piece of paper.

    As different as Swype is, it still plays on that basic QWERTY design that everybody is familiar with, so they don’t feel like they’re “changing devices” whenever they go from their computer to their laptop to their cell phone back to their computer. I couldn’t handle a different IME on each device, that I had to adjust to. If you really want to see what that’s like, try using QWERTY on one keyboard, and Dvorak on another, and switch between them frequently through out the day. It just doesn’t work until you know both layouts inside and out like the back of your hand, and even then, it’s a mindset you have to be in.

    I really think the alternate IMEs would work well from the ground up for new phone users, who could adapt to one before they learn to type – specifically 10 to 15 year old kids, but that’s about the only market I see for this type of thing generally speaking.

  4. To me, this input method would be very hard to pickup. It would take a very long time to get to the point where you wouldn’t have to study the screen before making each character.

    You’d be better off using Graffiti. At least it is based on characters. I just installed it on my EVO and it works well. Unfortunately for me, it’s not based on Graffiti2 so it has some shortcomings. Would be nice if they offered both. It still takes longer than typing with Swype or other keyboards. I mostly am playing with it out of nostalgia at this point.

  5. Even if this doesn’t catch on, I’m really eager to give it a shot.

    I really like the concept of it, and I see it has potential.

  6. Wow Quentyn that’s a lot of written to say you’re close minded.

    Really, how can you knock anything down without trying it?

  7. this seems like it will take way too much time to write something.

  8. fair play to them for coming up with something genuinely new and innovative and trying to improve something we all take for granted. I think it deserves me giving it a try for a few days at the very least! looking forward to it!

  9. @Dave: I suggest you do not ever download it or try it. It obviously was not designed with you in mind.

    These ‘alternative’ input methods are for the rest of us who like to try out new things, even if they do turn out to be a total POS.

    I also think Quentyn misses the reason for the minimal acceptance of alternative inputs. Consistent availability. I would have switched to a Dvorak keyboard many years ago if that layout was easily available on most of the keyboards I touched. The fact is, I work on IT and easily end up using a dozen different keyboards in one day. There is no mechanism in place on most [non linux] computers to easily switch layouts on the fly. Kiosks and other public terminals would have ended up being maddening to use. Just try typing quickly on a foreign keyboard where only a couple letters are in the “wrong” place. So I’ve stuck with QWERTY.

    T9: Ubiquitous
    QUERTY: Ubiquitous
    Everything else: “one-off”

    I think everything else will pretty much stay a “one-off” until it becomes available on a wide variety of similar platforms so that I know that the effort I’ve taken to learn the new/better/quicker input method won’t be lost with the next device I buy.

  10. so swype meets the rotary telephone… It looks like a bit of a pain in the arse, and just as much as i loved swpye, i kept going back to stock QWERTY because face it, it was what Ive been using for the past 24 years, i can just recognize it better, the only drawback for me is speed, i can type so fast that the phones touch input doesn’t distinguish and gets confused at the multiple touches.

    although interesting, this gets filed under “yet another input method trying to reinvent the wheel”

  11. I guess one useful advantage of this would be the ability to type blind once you’ve reached a level of proficiency. However turns out this has limited usefulness (I’ve experimented with a morse input method, while I can type proficiently most workflows are not wired for blind input :).

    One thing that I did want to comment on was their demonstration video. The concept takes about 8 seconds to grasp, but they have a frustrating 80 second history-of-computing dedicated to introducing the problem! Hilarious! I realise you have to pitch somewhat open endedly but this sort of buildup seems borderline condescending/hype building to me.

  12. I, for one, am looking forward to this. Palm had a couple of odd keyboards: fitaly and myKbd. Both had a learning curve, but once you got the hang of it, you could fly. I was spoiled by myKbd, and as nice as the sliding keyboards are for Android, 8pen looks like it might be able to fill that gap.

  13. I have been using a beta version of Swype on my Droid for a month or more. I had to resist the urge to nuke it shortly after install and I’m glad I did. Swype excels most when used on the portrait keyboard, no so much on the landscape keyboard.

    I’m intrigued by this new 8pen option though and will look forward to giving it a shot once it’s out.

  14. 8pen looks like incredibly unwieldy way of reinventing Perlin’s “QuikWriting” system, which works great if you spend a lot of time learning the layout but is in turn pretty unwieldy to learn.

  15. Meh, I’ll give it a shot. I thought she was going to say that you had to rotate around every time you wanted another letter, started reminding me of the macbook wheel:
    Why do they have to portray the phone in the video as an OBVIOUS Apple device when they’re gonna release it for Android? Sigh….

  16. Close minded, I am not. I even said I’ll try it and I may end up liking it in the article. And that wasn’t just to cover my tracks. I really think it could be great for a lot of people, but there will be resistance to adopt it when there are so many other ways that just “make sense.”

  17. I’m very interested in this just because it’s new and innovative. If it ends up being easy to learn, fast, and has a small error percentage I might adopt it. I’m finding Swype to be kind of bothersome and would like something new like 8pen. I hope it works out.

    @Kenyoni – The great thing about smartphone keyboards is they don’t really need to be adopted by a lot of people. With the virtual keyboards we can switch back and forth as we see fit.

  18. Hmm.. I dont think this is easy to adapt nor intuitive. Something like Swype on the other hand is much easier to master. I’d rather wait for google’s own blind type solution, than trying to learn something which might not go anywhere.

  19. Trying too hard to pass as a google product (the video, nexus one logo’s colour scheme and X, minimalistic website with google like layout). I have my doubts about this product already.

  20. Improves on swype in every way. Totally smart, totally out of the box.

  21. I can see this greatly improving accuracy on small screen devices but i can’t see how you can call this text entry method fast. Any good keyboard, physical or touchscreen, would beat it in a speed competition.
    Nevertheless, watching the video is one thing another is trying it for yourself. I am eager to try like many people here.

  22. Anyone else get the feeling this is like going from touchtone to rotary phones? It just seems like a step backwards.

  23. Graffiti beats this hands down. The one for the Android is awesome.

  24. Wow, the one thing my daughter complained about with her vibrant was that she couldn’t blind type. She used to all the time with t9, but there aren’t any reference points to feel using swype. 8pen seems to take care of that. I think its a great idea for those willing to let go of what they learned 20+ years ago. I probably won’t try it, but I wouldn’t count it out.

  25. I would only switch to this if it beat swypes world record for text input. Until then it will just be a novelty, something to try for an hour and then uninstall.

  26. come one people. When I was learning to type I installed a typing tutor. 30min a day for a week I was doing 100wpm. All they need is a similar typing tutor and you’ll be a pro in a few “classes”.

  27. I am open to anything, but I have to say that you really need to go some to beat SWYPE…and I really like VLINGO for voice to text. As voice to text matures, will there really be a need for a keyboard for the majority of users? Right now, VLINGO is more accurate than typing and SWYPE is too. I’m sure 8pen has its own strong points, but since we’re all familiar with a standard QWERTY layout, SWYPE makes more sense to me than learning a whole new concept…but that’s probably what they said about word processors over manual typewriters….and virtual keyboards over hardware keyboards…

  28. Swype is great for people who type one language at a time but sucks for me :(

  29. At least its an input method which you can use blind!

  30. This reminds me of that video on The Onion of the Apple notebook that replaced their keyboard with the “dial” that was on all the ipods at the time. If you haven’t watched it, you’re missing out. This is simply google’s version!

  31. It would be nice if we could try it without having to pay for it. I guess I won’t be trying it.

  32. ummmmmm. SPEECH TO TEXT kills this!

  33. The biggest problem I had with the alternatives listed is that I type in two languages. Go back and forth. Hungarian dictionary is not available anywhere. Going back and froth between the two languages is not trivial. So my dictionary is turned off. I get no help. Swipe and BlindType do not help me. But this sounds VERY promising. Come on people. You jumped the gun. I want to dl it and play with it but I can’t. In today’s world you cannot expect me to remember that I wanted to try this tomorrow :)

  34. Can’t download it still from the site or market. How do you get it? Their website says its available.

  35. Boo @ no trial version.

    I don’t care how crippled it is. I’d rather see if this is something I can easily learn or if I’m never going to use it.

  36. Like Janice would say: “Oh, my, god!”

    This seems like a horrible, horrible idea. Makin a full gesture just to get a single letter? Swype would get a full word with that!

    As your article says I will surely try it, as I like to try before dismising completely a new idea. But in paper (and video) it just sounds stupid.

    And, by the way, again a design idea that doesn’t get into account the other 50% of the plannet that doesn’t speak English.

    When querty keyboard was created the layout was thought to slow the typing speed (as initial machines used to stuck easily). That worked fine in the end for other languages because hardware improved.

    But with 8pen idea there will be no hardware improvements that will easy the use for other languages, going again all the way of the localization for keyboards (making it hard for everybody to use other countries terminals)…

    Really I don’t see a glimpse of hope for 8pen…

  37. More and options are always a good thing

  38. My hat goes off to anybody who tries anything new when it comes to keyboards/keypads/software based input. The fact that we still use a lay-out created so the arms on a typewriter wouldn’t smash into each other is crazy.

  39. Kept it about 7 minutes, it sucks

  40. I don’t think I want to learn a whole new proprietary method of inputting text. This just seems like a recipe for confusion.

  41. @Levi

    Try SlideIT, it has Hungarian support and you can switch between primary and secondary lanugages with a key on the keyboard :)

  42. you’re looking at this all wrong. this is not a throw back to T9, its back to the truly classic multiple pushes that I personally never got used to, but many of my friends used exclusively, tapping away at lightning speed, and with surprising accuracy. its not for casual users, like T9, its for someone who wants to text while driving, never even looking at the phone after having read the message. it has its place, and I might even try getting used to it (not for driving, just for the speed). I’d like if it turned into a qwerty in landscape though…

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