SwiftKey’s bogus adventure (and not so bogus bugs)

Earlier this afternoon I saw an announcement on Twitter from SwiftKey, the people behind my favourite keyboard on Android: a new way of using their keypad that they called “SwiftKey Tilt”, which meant you could type by simply moving your phone up and down and from side to side while a “pinball” typed out words for you. This had a lot of people fooled, perhaps because phones do, after all, have gyroscopes which detect the position of the phone and trigger such things as automatic rotation (not very accurately in my experience, which is why I have that feature turned off). The most recent release of SwiftKey had something called SwiftKey Flow, which enables you to draw your finger across the keyboard to form words, rather than touch key after key (i.e. their version of Swype, effectively). I got annoyed at the Tilt announcement:

I got home and saw the video with everyone dancing around and somehow managing to type, despite their movements being rather haphazard. The comments revealed that it was actually an April Fool’s joke. One other thing that had me fooled was that it came out after midday — traditionally, April Fool’s jokes come to an end at noon. And I read Twitter a lot, and I don’t think I’d have missed the announcement if it had been posted in the morning.

SwiftKey Flow is the major feature in the most recent release of SwiftKey (version 4). The app was already best known for its advanced predictived text; it was able to learn from your typing so it would be able to guess fairly accurately what word you are likely to type next by your previous typing, and it can analyse your blog, Facebook and Twitter feeds, emails and texts to further train its prediction engine. It’s not so good with names; it is more likely to assume you want to type a famous person’s name, like Matt Damon’s in my case, than your own or a contact’s name. However, SKF is not as good as Swype, as I discovered when I tried it out. It’s slower than normal SwiftKey typing, where it will guess a whole word fairly accurately from just a few letters, even if it didn’t guess the word in advance. SK4 can even detect where you should have inserted a space in between words, even if you typed the words wrong. Flow really slows you down, because moving your finger from letter to letter, can take longer than just typing the two keys in succession, even with one finger (let alone two). It’s not as accurate as Swype, in my experience, and there are only the standard few choices if it gets the word wrong, and you have to just type the whole word again if the right word is not among them (the current Swype Beta offers several choices of corrections).

The thing that got me annoyed was that SwiftKey seemed to be dabbling with new technology rather than fixing the bugs in their existing app. There are some persistent problems with the app as it stands. One is how it handles certain punctuation marks, particularly colons and semicolons. It should do the same as with a comma, i.e. insert the punctuation mark at the end of the previous word, insert a space automatically, then move on to the next word. However, it doesn’t; you have to press the backspace, then type the semicolon or colon, then the space, manually. Otherwise, you will end up with the punctuation mark at the beginning of the next word.

Then there is how it deals with hyphenated phrases. We use such phrases when combining multiple words to form an adjective, as in “the well-documented problem” or “the all-female club”. As things stand, it will offer the corrections “all female” or “all - female”, both wrong (especially the second), and will make you type out the whole phrase and then hit the word on the left to program the term into SwiftKey as a new word. Given that SwiftKey is developed in London, you would have thought it would accommodate this commonly-used (there’s another one) feature of the English language, but no. (Yes, you can use a space, but that is nowadays more common in a descriptive phrase — “the problem is well documented”, for example. When putting it before the noun, we use the hyphenated phrase.)

A third bug is its handling of the “‘s” ending. Any noun can end in ‘s, yet SwiftKey only recognises a small subset as standard; again, if you want another noun ending like that, you have to program it in explicitly. Swype solves the problem by allowing you to swipe from the apostrophe to the S, but SwiftKey doesn’t, even in Flow mode. It should recognise ‘s as an ending, and not require every word you ever use ending in ‘s to be programmed as a separate word, because it’s not. It’s the same word with a standard English ending.

A screenshot from an Android phone, showing a nonsense phrase generated by tilting the phone in different ways.I submitted the apostrophe problem to the SwiftKey bug tracker, but I can’t find it when I search for the word “apostrophe” or “apostrophes”. Perhaps this is because it did not get enough votes. The problem is, when I submit a bug report, I don’t want it democratically voted on by other users (not all of whom even speak English so the bug won’t affect them anyway); I want it assigned to a developer and fixed. Perhaps this post will get it through to them if I mention them when I tweet it out. I notice the SwiftKey team responded to a lot of tweets from people who played “find the Tilt feature” but they did not respond to my tweet which I included above.

And yes, the “Tilt feature” does exist: you’re supposed to type “tilt”, long-press on the word when it comes up in the selections, and then select “SwiftKey Tilt” and the little pinball thingy appears. The feature does not work very well: I had a go and it typed a lot of nonsense. Perhaps the gyroscope on my phone isn’t very good, but as I said before — they never are. I thought it was a pre-programmed slogan, but it did not make enough sense for that. It was clearly something they built into the last minor update, ready for this joke. However, the problems their app has in handling standard English punctuation are not a joke, and they need to fix them before they work on the next headline-grabbing new feature. I bought SwiftKey early on, I’ve recommended it to friends and family and continue to do so, but these bugs detract significantly from its stand-out, indeed named feature: fewer keystrokes and speedy typing. They need to be fixed pretty quick, not when the community votes on it.

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