Thursday, August 11, 2005

T9 & Predictive Text: Overlooked & Underrated

phoneSpeaking of T9. For those who didn't know, I work as a Sales Rep. for Quality Cellular (U.S. Cellular). I've had a cell phone since I was 15 and being a tech geek, keep up on all the new technology and features. One of the originals that came along with SMS (aka: text messaging) was T9 predictive text entry. I really can't imagine texting as much as I do if I couldn't use T9 to write my messages. For this reason, I am always surprised when I hear from a friend or customer that T9 is stupid, confusing and worthless (which I hear very often). 95% of the time I hear this is simply because the person doesn't know how to use it. This is why I'm going to make a post explaining Predictive Text SMS Technology.

A phone keypad is probably one of the worst interfaces for text entry. It was definitely not designed with the intention to do so. In fact, up until SMS came along most telephones left out Q & Z from the keypad letters, simply because they didn't feel it was necessary to include the 2 least frequently used letters in the language. Now that SMS is here and widely used, it's apparent that there must be a better way. The standard multi-tap system will sometimes require you to push a button 4 times to get to the letter you want. One of these 4 press letters being S which is one of the most common letters in the English language. Along with that, if consecutive letters in a word are on the same key, there is a 3 or so second wait time before you can enter the next letter. As far as efficiency goes, you can't really get much worse without trying.

Now along comes predictive text systems such as T9 to make the whole thing a whole lot quicker and easier. Lets start this little lesson with you going to grab your phone, and bringing up your SMS composer. Lets say for example you want to say COOL, in which case you would press 2,2,2,6,6,6,pause,6,6,6,5,5,5. That's 12 button presses with a 3 second pause in the middle for a commonly used 4 letter word. Now, figure out how to enable T9 on your phone, or whichever predictive text system your phone uses (they all have one). Now lets try COOL again. This time, totally disregard the letters that are coming up on the screen as you are pressing buttons. Rather than pressing each of the buttons 3 times each, just press them one time for each letter, so you would enter 2,6,6,5 without any pauses. If you are using T9, the word you will see is probably BOOK. Well that's not what you want, but that's ok. What predictive text does is finds all the possible words that can be spelled with the letters for those buttons when pressed in that order. If the word that comes up isn't the one that you want, there will be a button on your phone that will cycle through the other words that are possible. On my Nokia it's the * key and on the LG I made the previous post with it was the 0 key. They try to arrange the most commonly used words for a combo at the beginning of the list. On our example, COOL is the second word in my T9 sequence following BOOK. After you have the word you want, just hit SPACE to go to the next word. This effectively makes the number of your button presses the same as the number of letters in your word, plus any cycling you have to do through the possible words.

Now T9 isn't perfect. Just like any other dictionary, it can not possibly contain every word that you may want to type. If you cycle through and don't find your word in there, one of your soft keys will probably give you a SPELL or ADD WORD option which will let you use the regular multi-tap method to input your word, which will also then be saved in the dictionary for the next time you want to use it. One drawback I have found is when using T9 on my Nokia phone, I can not save words that contain both letters and numbers, such as 2nite, l8r and 4ward to my dictionary (which I could do on my old Sony Ericsson). In fact, entering numbers at all requires me to go through the menu and select INSERT NUMBER, which is option 6 of 12, making it the furthest menu option to navigate to. Oh well, its still far more convenient for every day messaging than multi-tap.

If you are in that 95% and reading this, your social life probably just got a whole lot easier. For that you are welcome. If you are one of those weird 5% (like my roommate) who prefer multi-tap and fear new ways because you have to adapt a little, then you can go buy a Sidekick or something and have a good old time even trying to use it as a telephone when your sick of hunting around for the small buttons and accidentaly pressing 2 or 3 keys at once. QWERTY keyboards were not meant to be 3 inches wide. Enjoy using your newfound tech-knowledge, text away, and send me lots of money and other cool stuff for having saved you from early arthritis in your thumbs.

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