Howard Gutowitz wants to get his girlfriend fired. Only then will he consider himself a true success.
She's an operator at France Telecom, where she types in text pager messages. Her job is made necessary because of one of the wireless Web's biggest problem: It's incredibly difficult, time-consuming and frustrating to type text on a cell phone dial pad.
But Gutowitz, a cryptographer and chaos mathematician, thinks he's cracked his biggest code yet -- making it easier to type text and Web addresses using a cell phone keypad. If his company takes off, her job won't be needed, he reasons.
Gutowitz has unleashed a program he claims can accurately predict words as they are being typed on a cell phone keypad, even after just one digit is struck. He claims it cuts in half the number of keystrokes on those tiny keypads that big fingers have to push.
If so, he and his tiny start-up Eatoni Ergonomics may have helped dissolve the wireless world's biggest, ugliest wart.
One speed bump to the promise of a billion enabled cell phones is the half-dozen operating systems battling for industry dominance. The other is the long-awaited next-generation phones that come with everything from Internet browsers to cameras.
But for some, an even harder riddle to solve is finding a way to type on a cell phone without straining fingers or patience.
"Studies have shown that people don't use things with a lot of clicking," said Geoff Koontz, an analyst with Strategis Group. "They are more likely to give up."
Typing text using a cell phone forces someone to work on nine tiny keys that could represent any of three letters at any time. By comparison, a full-sized keyboard has about four dozen keys, most representing just one symbol or number. Many of the older generation cell phones still offer a rudimentary type of entry system, known as multiple tapping. As telephone keypads have for a century now, each digit also represents three letters. For example, the keypad for the number "2" could also represent the letters a, b or c.
But on a wireless phone, if someone strikes the "2" key, the "a" first appears. To type a "c" means striking the same key three times to cycle through the letters. It adds up. The word "cot," for example, needs seven key strokes to spell it out.
Never mind about punctuation or a URL. That usually needs even more keys to push, and miss.
Seattle-based Tegic Communications ended a lot of the tap dancing when it created the software program T9. The software has been licensed by nearly three-dozen handset makers, which have bundled the software into about 100 handsets. Consumers of T9-enabled phones don't have to peck and peck and peck. It's one peck per letter. The software does the rest.
For example, to spell the word "weather," someone with a T9 phone would just have to press the keys 9-3-2-8-4-3-7.
Under the other, rudimentary method, the phone would read that as "wdatgd." But the T9's dictionary database compares the possible combinations of all the letters to spit out an appropriate list of words. It works best on longer words. Shorter verbiage often poses a problem.
Tegic is now owned by AOL Time-Warner, which couldn't be reached for comment Monday afternoon.
"T9 is a solid product," Koontz said. "I can't see anything better, in terms of a nine-digit keypad."
But Eatoni engineers say they've done this whole process better. Its algorithms are mind readers, which will guess at the rest of the word while it's being typed. The program is based on how often letter combinations appear, the same theory at the heart of cracking spy codes.
Gutowitz's software is just being introduced to the cell phone market. A spokesman for the company says the start-up is in negotiations with some phone makers, but it's not ready to announce any agreements.
So this year, at least, Gutowitz and his girlfriend might have a chaos-free Valentine's Day.
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