Swype, Following T9 Model, Releases Text Input Software on Samsung Phone
It’s been seven years in the making, but we might be looking at the biggest new text-input technology for mobile phones since T9 predictive texting. At least that’s what Swype is hoping. The Seattle startup is releasing its software for the first time today, on the Samsung Omnia II, an advanced smartphone with a touch screen and plenty of nifty features (some call it an iPhone lookalike).
Swype’s software is the most novel of these features. The technology lets you type quickly by sliding your finger, or a stylus, across the screen keyboard without tapping or pausing on the letters. The company says novices can learn to type 30 words per minute within just a few days of use. Swype tries to address one of the biggest complaints about touch screen devices—that they’re slow and frustrating to type on with existing methods.
I spoke with Aaron Sheedy, Swype’s chief operating officer, about the significance of today’s product rollout, as well as the broader strategy of the startup. First, some background. Swype was started in 2002 by engineers Cliff Kushler and Randy Marsden. Kushler had co-invented T9 at Seattle’s Tegic Communications (which has been installed on some 4 billion mobile phones), while Marsden developed the on-screen keyboard software installed in Microsoft Windows. The two got together after Tegic was sold to AOL in 1999 (it is now owned by Nuance), and they started working on alternative text-input systems, motivated in part by disability research.
Swype went through a rebirth of sorts in 2008, when Sheedy and CEO Mike McSherry (both former Microsofties) came on board. The company presented at last year’s TechCrunch50 conference, and announced a $1.3 million funding round from angel investors and company management in April of this year. It currently has 18 employees.
Samsung, which just announced it has sold its 50 millionth full touch screen phone, is a key partner in Swype’s product strategy. The prominent handset maker was also an early adopter of T9. “They’ve taken a good, aggressive approach to bringing new technologies to market,” Sheedy says. “We’re looking to deploy more devices with them next year, and with a few other partners.”
The Omnia II is available through Verizon Wireless, and it runs on Windows Mobile 6.5. Which raises the question of how Swype plans to expand its customer base. Swype gets paid by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)—handset makers like Samsung—but it also has to have deep knowledge of the wireless carrier ecosystem. (Dan Shapiro of Seattle-based Ontela recently talked about how viral distribution is difficult in the mobile sector because of all the different platforms and carrier relationships.)
“We spend a lot of time outreaching to the carriers, as well as OEMs. The trajectory is fairly similar to T9. It’s very good business for us to make sure the carriers have a good handle” on what Swype’s value proposition is for their subscribers, Sheedy says. “To the extent you’re trying to deliver software to end users, you need to have relationships with both carriers and handsets.”
In any case, it sounds like Swype has solved an important problem for mobile phones (and other devices without keyboards, like tablet computers). What remains is to see how much consumer demand there is for what amounts to a new and better way of typing. I also asked Sheedy whether we’ll see Swype on the iPhone anytime soon. If so, he didn’t let on. “Right now we need to make sure our Samsung partnership is executed very well,” he says. “We need to stay focused on that aspect of our business.”
Lastly, I asked whether Sheedy sees the competition as primarily other text-input technologies—offerings from ShapeWriter, Dasur, and Nuance, for example—or things coming down the pike like speech recognition systems. Sheedy says it’s definitely the former. But he emphasized the bigger picture in terms of consumers. “Our goal is to be there as more and more people migrate to touch-screen phones,” he says. “[Swype] takes a frustrating experience and turns it into a fun one. It’s in line with the feeling of what a touch-screen phone should be.”