Microsoft: Why Windows Phone 7 has a better soft keyboard

Which I absolutely agree with, having spent the previously three years on an iPhone. But Microsoft Research has published an interesting article about why the Windows Phone virtual (or “soft”) keyboard is better than that of the competition. It’s worth a look.

Windows Phone 7 users find that their keyboards seem to have a better knack for knowing what they intend to type—or even what they intend to say.

That’s because of collaboration between a Microsoft Research team and the Windows Phone 7 product group. They worked together to apply the principles of machine learning—in which technology works on a person’s behalf—to improving finger input on Window Phone 7’s “soft,” or virtual, keyboard.

“We wanted to have the best text-input solution in the world,” Eric Badger, developer lead, says. “When it comes to digital communication, the task of getting an idea from your head to the keyboard is really important.”

The Microsoft Research and Windows Phone 7 teams tackled the problem by first conducting extensive user experiments on a Windows Phone 7 prototype. They collected data on how people touch soft keyboard keys, what it means when people employ different holding positions—using only their thumbs, for instance—and the strengths and weaknesses of competitors’ keypads.

The typing patterns of an individual are collected by the game Text Text Revolution!

For crowdsourcing, the data-collection tool eventually was turned into a game called Text Text Revolution! by Dmitry Rudchenko, a developer on Badger’s team. The game is rated at four out of five stars on the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace, and it not only helps users grow accustomed to typing quickly and accurately on their Windows Phone devices, but also generates ideal data for training statistical models as a side effect of playing the game. Since its launch, the game has collected more than 20 million touch points for training.

By combining statistical models of language patterns and touch points, the keyboard dynamically changes the virtual size of the likely next letter, so that it has a larger target area—the area where tapping the keypad results in a particular letter, symbol, or number.

“We don’t show that visually,” Paek says. “It all happens behind the scenes.”

Brilliant. And thanks to Leon Z. for the link.

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16 Responses to Microsoft: Why Windows Phone 7 has a better soft keyboard

  1. gstevenb says:

    Actually I am having the opposite experience. I am constantly having to replace “if” with “of” and “wring” with “wrong”, etc. I had an iPhone for 2.5 years and never had that much difficulty and it was my first soft keyboard.

    • rodsimmons says:

      No that is interesting. On the BlackBerry I used Vlingo and rarely typed which is odd as the device is designed for input.

      I always felt the keyboard on the Zune HD was good and the Samsung Focus made it better. I guess you have to get use to the offset but on the iPhone I had have issue with Aidan becoming Sudan or Min becoming Mob.

      I guess a combo between good spell checking / word suggestion and key offset can make a huge difference. One thing for sure the default Android Keyboard and the BlackBerry (Storm 1, Storm 2, and Torch) virtual keyboards stink.

    • cpdjoe says:

      I think the issue there would be that those words you didn’t want to spell are actual words

  2. rodsimmons says:

    Do you feel the WP7 Keyboard is better than SwiftKey on Android. I love the WP7 keyboard and feel it is superior to the iPhone keyboard however SwiftKey removes the need to do some typing.
    Too bad MS is not allowing third party vendors to change things like the virtual keyboard like Android.

    Saying your are better than other stock keyboards is one thing. The auto complete phrases on SwiftKey is addictive.

  3. legosz says:

    My only issue with the keyboard is I constantly find myself pressing B or N instead of space… Most likely my own fault but, but it is still annoying.

    I’ve not used any other touch keyboard for a lenght of time to know if it is specific to the phone or if its just me…

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  5. lippidp says:

    I absolutely hate soft keyboards. It doesn’t matter how well it works. It’s annoying and takes up screen real estate. I’m thankful that MS hasn’t completely given up on real keyboards like apparently they have with the stylus. I’ll have to check out XDA to see if there’s a WP7 ROM for Tilt 2 – the last great WM phone (with tilting keyboard and stylus). Does anyone know?

  6. tekgadg0 says:

    I have much better experience typing on the iPhone or typing on Swype for Android.

    Also, instead of boasting about input methods, MS should focus on getting more apps and improving their marketing message. They aren’t going to sell more phones by screaming “hey we have better soft keyboard than everyone else!”

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  8. clhodapp says:

    I’m sorry, but I just can’t agree that this is even close to being the best text entry method for a touch-screen device (I am assuming that Bager meant that this was their goal, because, obviously, a touch keyboard on a phone can’t compete with a desktop keyboard). I appreciate the work that went into creating the best immediately-intuitive touch keyboard possible, but Swype is simply an inherently better system (despite the learning curve) in much the same way that T9 is just better than the standard way of inputing text on a numeric keypad.

    • Paul Thurrott says:

      You can’t claim Swype is “inherently” better. It’s different. And with training, it may be more efficient. But this is like the claim that Macs are more “intuitive” than PCs. Not true, and there’s almost no such thing as an intuitive digital interface of any kind (though touch comes close, perhaps). What you know to use is easy. But that requires experience.

      • clhodapp says:

        Your comment is rather scathing ;). When I said that Swype was “inherently better”, I simply meant that it allows you to do the same work, but in an expedited manner, at the expense of a not-long learning curve. For occasional users, the learning curve may not be worth it, but I have difficulty believing that anyone who pays for a smartphone data plan would want to use their phone so little. I do think your argument that there is no such thing as an “intuitive digital interface” to be rather strange, however, because in a world where you don’t recognize intuitiveness as a thing to strive for, efficiency is king (I suppose that an argument that a standard touch keyboard is closer to what users already know is compatible with what you’ve already said).

      • Paul Thurrott says:

        Don’t be so sensitive. :)

        What I wrote was that the WP keyboard is “better” and then I compared it to the iPhone keyboard. That’s all.

  9. ca3z says:

    What WP7 is doing in terms of “dynamically changes the virtual size of the likely next letter, so that it has a larger target area—” sounds like what the iPhone has been doing all along. See from June 2007

    From the above:
    “In addition to analyzing a word that was entered and suggesting a correction (e.g. “ouzza” yields a suggested “pizza”), the iPhone has a feature that will dynamically resize the “hot zone” for a key that you are likely to press next. For instance, if you are typing the word “time” and enter “tim,” the iPhone keyboard will automatically increase the hot zone size for the “e” key, since that is the most common letter to press next.”

  10. Arturo Goga says:

    Actually, yeah, that’s what the iPhone’s been doing since it was launched, in 2007.

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