Can a new way of typing turn tablets into productivity machines? Probably not
Wouldn't it be nice if someone came along and made the typing experience on a tablet so good that it were competitive with typing on a laptop?
That's what Syntellia is attempting to do with Fleksy, a software keyboard that the company says makes typing easier on any touchscreen device. The company announced today that it has raised $3 million in a Series A round with participation from Highland Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, and Middleland Capital.
If Syntellia were able to achieve that vision and make typing easy on tablets, it could turn them into the ultimate productivity devices. (Actually, some people think they are already – provided you add a separate keyboard.) That could in turn erode the need for laptops, which people like me still cling to in order to perform tasks such as writing articles, filling in spreadsheets, and conducting intensive research. People like me, I'd imagine, would welcome the opportunity to ditch our more expensive and clunkier laptops. And that's a vision Syntellia is pushing to make a reality.
“What we want to enable is for people to ditch the laptop and go completely mobile with a tablet and smartphone combination," says Syntellia co-founder Kosta Eleftheriou.
So how would Fleksy achieve that goal? By making typing more intuitive to touchscreens, say the founders.
The Fleksy keyboard looks like a cleaner version of an ordinary touchscreen keyboard, with bigger buttons and less clutter, but it has powerful predictive capabilities based on pattern recognition and machine learning. The result is that you can type inaccurately – hitting numerous wrong keys – and the algorithms will be able to figure out to a high degree of accuracy what you intended to say. By learning from your personal style, it will also eventually be able to recognize your common typing errors and correct them accordingly.
The keyboard also relies more on gestures – swipe one way to delete, swipe the other to insert a space, swipe down to select a different word – than it does on tapping specific keys. Eleftheriou and his co-founder Ioannis Verdelis claim that there is no learning curve to using Fleksy, because it's similar to the way you already type on touchscreen keyboards.
But that's not quite true. It took me a lot of trial and error to get the hang of the new way of typing, and I still don't know how to produce a carriage return. [Update: The Syntellia founders got in touch to clarify that its Android beta (as well as its iOS SDK) feature the familiar keyboard interface, including spacebar, carriage return key, backspace, and other buttons.] If Fleksy were to become the default keyboard for my iPad, I'd have to unlearn years of entrenched typing habits. That will be a major barrier for the company to overcome.
Syntellia first marketed Fleksy as a useful typing tool for the vision impaired. Its default mode is set to read out the words to you as you type them, and its predictive system is effective enough that you don't need to hit every key with absolute accuracy in order to form a sentence that makes sense. I met the Syntellia founders in Washington DC last year, and they demonstrated how you can type on a Fleksy keyboard without actually looking. I ended up calling Flesky "Braille for the iPhone."
But now Eleftherioua and Verdelis want Fleksy to be the default keyboard for mobile devices, and even wearable computers. They have even demonstrated Fleksy's utility beyond the touchscreen, with a prototype for the gesture-control tech produced by Leap Motion, allowing people to type in thin air.
The founders think the company can make money licensing their technology to partners – such as handset makers, or car companies that instal touchscreens in their vehicles – and by taking a cut of revenue from developers who sell Fleksy as an in-app purchase. They also intend to offer customized versions of the keyboard for paying customers.
It's a big vision, and the San Francisco-based startup will need every dollar of its new round in its attempt to realize it. But for this keyboard to become more than just a cool app or novel alternative, Syntellia has to figure out how to make the experience more intuitive.