|Photo credit: GSMA/Ashish Maurya
What do Arabic, Hindi, Finnish, Russian and Swahili
have in common? Just that if you try to send a text message
from your mobile phone in any of those languages
you are likely to end up with sore thumbs. You need
to tap keys repeatedly in order to find the right letter.
The complex languages of Asia and many other regions
have large numbers of characters. The many key-taps
that are needed make the texting option on mobile
phones practically unusable in these languages.
The process is so cumbersome and time-consuming
that in India, for example, three out of five owners of
mobile phones have never sent a text using the short
message service (SMS). Even the Latin script languages
of the world that use accents or diacritics, such as
French or Spanish, are poorly supported.
One way of getting round this problem would be for
phone manufacturers to produce customized keypads
for each language. But that does not make economic
sense because it would tie devices to speakers of a particular
language. Around four out of five mobile phone
subscribers throughout the world today are unable to
type on their mobile phones or do so only with great
difficulty. The good news is that help is at hand.
Clever texting has arrived!
Clever texting is a new technology that makes it
possible to type easily in any script on existing, basic
mobile phones. There is no need for a different keypad.
This technology offers a means of typing extremely fast,
pressing the keys just once for each character on average, even for the complex scripts of Asia. The texting
method is ergonomic, and simple to learn and use.
The technology has been developed for many languages
and is already running on phones in Arabic,
Hebrew, the major languages of India (including Bengali,
Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Punjabi, Tamil
and Telugu), Korean and Russian, as well as the Latin
scripts of English, Finnish, French, Portuguese, Spanish
and Swahili. Work is in progress to add Japanese and
Mandarin. Clever texting can support all of these languages
on the same phone. It works in the same userfriendly
way both on a keypad and on a touchscreen.
How does it work?
Clever texting is an intelligent and dynamic virtual
keypad, which appears on the screen of the mobile
phone. It offers a limited number of characters in the
chosen language, together with a keypad number for
each character. The clever part is that the required characters
are predicted with great accuracy, based on work
done on corpora linguistics in the language concerned.
The user uses the numeric keypad to choose the
characters to enter. Then the system makes a fresh prediction
and displays only the limited number of characters
that the user is likely to want to enter next. And
so on. If the required character is not displayed — a
rare occurrence — the user chooses “Next List” for the
next set of predictions. This predictive capacity is based
on pre-estimated statistical probabilities of character
combinations that relate well to the phonemic nature
of each language.
Because clever texting predicts characters on the basis
of linguistics rather than dictionaries, it works well
for non-dictionary words, such as names of people and
places. “Every language has its own phonetic patterns,
which are maintained through its words within or outside
the dictionary,” says Abhijit Bhattacharjee, Founder
and Chief Executive Officer of Luna Ergonomics, an
Indian start-up company and a Sector Member of ITU.
Luna Ergonomics are the inventors of this new technology.
Mr Bhattacharjee cites the example of his own
name, which has the phoneme “bh” occurring twice, a
common occurrence in all Indian languages but completely
absent in English.
The technology can be implemented as an app on
a smart device or embedded into the hardware of a
low-cost basic phone or even provided in a SIM card.
The technology has already been developed for Java,
Android, iPhone, Windows and other platforms.
A demonstration of the English and the Arabic product
running on an iPhone touchscreen is quite amazing
— characters keep coming up on the very same key or
a neighbouring key. This ergonomically desirable facility
offers a remarkable improvement over users’ current
experience with hunt and peck typing of tiny letters on
the congested virtual keypad of a touchscreen.
Luna Ergonomics has done the corpora linguistic research
for 22 major languages from diverse linguistic
families. The clever texting strategy works equally well
for each of them. This indicates that clever texting could
support the hundreds of micro-languages of the world,
which today are endangered. The speakers of these
micro-languages — sometimes numbering less than a
hundred thousand, perhaps living on an island or in a
remote region — currently have no hope of digital inclusion.
“The methodology of corpora linguistics is productive
and cost-effective because it is not a rule-based
approach and does not require a permanent role of linguists.
The process from corpora collection to product
development is now completely automated. The algorithm
and data are isolated from each other, freeing the
process from errors and bugs and offering the possibility
of a pluggable language support on a device”, adds
All languages on an equal footing?
The technology has attracted wide-ranging interest
from across the industry. The award-wining Panini
Keypad — the suite of products for Indian languages — offers immediate conversion between any one of those
languages into any other.
CleverTextingTM — the trade name of the process
developed by Luna Ergonomics — has been described as
a paradigm shift in how languages could be supported
on digital devices in the future. It is applicable not only
to mobile phones, but also to all other digital devices,
such as the tablet, Internet protocol television (IPTV),
automated teller machines and gaming consoles. The
technology was showcased at the Oracle Pavilion, during
the Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona in
February 2011, as a key Java offering for mobile phones
in the BRIC countries: Brazil, the Russian Federation,
India and China. During the World Telecommunication
Development Conference in Hyderabad, India, in May-June 2010, ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré
congratulated Luna Ergonomics on developing the
A phone in every hand in the developing countries
is an opportunity for digital inclusion. Although mobile
phones were once primarily used to make voice calls,
today they can do much more. Some allow users to
send text messages, store address details, access the
Internet and send e-mails. Each of these actions requires
typing on the phone. Clever texting could make these
services available to speakers of all the world’s tongues.