Instant Text Mobile Reviews

On the Design of Instant Text Mobile

by Jean D. Ichbiah and Alan Jay Weiner

May 2005.


We started thinking of Instant Text Mobile around 1995 and our first version of Instant Text for Windows was actually working on the pen computers of that time (1996), integrated with the Fitaly keyboard. When this early generation of pen computers came to an end, Instant Text and Fitaly started to evolve separately. Instant Text developed very successfully on the Windows platform and became the most widely used expander in Medical Transcription. Fitaly restarted on the Newton and then on the Palm and the Pocket PC.

For years, our impression was that these machines did not have sufficient power to support the kind of run-time algorithms needed for Instant Text. As the power of PDAs is now well over that of the 1995 PCs, we have come to revisit the subject and our answer is Instant Text Mobile. This first version is for the Palm and our intent is to port it to other popular mobile platforms.

In the mean time, other expansion products have appeared for the Palm, using the less demanding approach known as word completion. Inevitably some users of these expansion products will draw comparison with Instant Text Mobile. We certainly think that Instant Text Mobile is so much beyond these other products as to make it in a category of itself, but it does not hurt to explain why. Consequently, the purpose of this paper is to discuss some design considerations of Instant Text Mobile and also to contrast it with these other products.

We start by discussing the main functionality: the "Jump Ahead" approach, the advantages of concentrating on phrases and using multiple glossaries, and the use of macros.

Then we discuss some interface considerations: the importance of having visually stable advisories, the use of the Command Bar and the Menu-Menu function key to provide quick access to all functions of Instant Text Mobile, and how the ability to use the product with a keyboard influenced the design.

Finally we review a number of other aspects that include glossary tools such as the Viewer and the Importer, and ergonomic issues associated with the use of accents and spaces.

The Main Functionality

First we discuss four unique aspects of the Instant Text Mobile functionality.

The "Jump ahead" approach

Instant Text Mobile is the only product using our patented "Jump ahead" approach. All other existing expansion products — WordComplete, TextPlus, QuickWords... — use a strict word-completion approach that requires typing the first letters of a word (all first letters). We have always felt this approach to be too limited. As the introduction of the User's Manual shows, word completion only saves about half of the letters of the words to which it is applied. In addition as you do not apply it to every word, it brings a reduction that is around 20 to 25% of the keystrokes.

The "Jump ahead" or "subset" approach used by Instant Text Mobile is one of the things that allow much greater savings. To take an example in French, trying to type "généreux" one is tempted to type "gx" and this jumping ahead directly to the "x" gives the word immediately. With traditional word completion, you would have to type "genere" before seeing "généreux" which is not a very generous saving.

Concentrating on Phrases

This same idea that the gains to be expected from words are limited is the reason why Instant Text concentrates on the use of phrases (except perhaps, for German, since so many German words are really phrases — think of "Auseinandersetzung" or "Außenwirtschaftsoffensive").

This explains the addition of the concept of "preferred abbreviation" exemplified by the use of "iwltr" for "I would like to receive." It is true that the Jump-ahead technique alone would already work with this natural approach of using word initials. But giving a special recognition to this preferred way has the advantage of showing these phrases earlier.

None of the other expansion products really supports phrases, limited as they are by the word-completion approach. For example, there are about twenty of common English phrases starting with "it is" in the Business glossary and the context provided by the first word "it" is not sufficient to differentiate them — unless you had twenty advisory lines. With Instant Text Mobile, you only need to type "itp" to to get "it is possible."

This use of phrases leads to substantial savings and both the Italian and the French contain thousands of them (the current Business is less rich but a later version will put it on the same level as the other two).

Using Multiple Glossaries

Instant Text Mobile is designed to allow the use of several glossaries. Ideally, you want to use a glossary that is very rich in words and phrases covering the subject on which you are currently writing. On the other hand this does not mean that a very large universal glossary would be a good thing: Terms that are not relevant to the current subject would act as "noise" in the advisories, preventing the display of more useful ones.

So, an ideal glossary is both rich and focused and this leads to the use of several subject-specific glossaries. Of course, this means that it must be possible to switch from one glossary to another in a second and this is the case with Instant Text Mobile: You can display the Glossary List in two taps and quickly select a new glossary with another tap.

With other expansion products, switching glossary takes twenty to thirty seconds and this makes switching impractical. They are essentially one-glossary products.

Using Macros

A natural extension of the ability to expand text is to allow macro expansions that perform commands. The idea is to allow a glossary entry to specify a sequence of actions that you can do on the device, and not just entering characters.

For example, we could write a glossary entry that expands to "-year-old" but this would leave the space before the hyphen and we would obtain "12 -year-old" instead of "12-year-old". Using the command ‹backspace› is a way to get a correct expansion: the glossary entry "‹backspace›-year-old" gives the expected "12-year-old" by typing "12 yo".

A complex macro could switch to Memopad, start a new document, fill in the date and time, and be ready for you to type a title.

Interface Considerations

We now discuss the importance of having stable advisories, the use of the Command Bar and the Menu-Menu function key to provide quick access to all functions of Instant Text Mobile, and how the ability to use the product with a keyboard influenced the design.

Stable Advisories

One of the lessons we have learned from the use of Instant Text on the PC is the importance of having visually stable advisories: You are writing some memo or message and are concentrating on its subject. Some suggestions are going to appear on the advisories and you may or not want to look at them. Having advisories that do not move makes them easier to ignore as there is less distracting flicker. Compare the two images below.

On the left, the position, size, and contents of the advisory all change as you add letters. On the right, Instant Text shows an advisory whose contents change but whose position and size remain stable.

One obvious requirement is that you do not want advisories to cover the text you type and prevent you to see it. While obvious, this is not always easy to do on the small screen of a PDA. Instant Text tries to ensure that the current line is always visible. For example, when you are typing in the middle of the screen, it will show word suggestions above the current line and phrase suggestions below.

Note that a few applications make it impossible to know the cursor position and we provide a Dodge command to reposition manually advisories to the top or to the bottom.

Accessible Commands and Menus

There is an inherent difficulty for an application such as Instant Text that works with other applications, which is to provide easy access to its own menu and commands in a number of taps that is as small as possible. Of course we cannot use any shortcut that would preempt shortcuts used by other applications.

Instant Text Mobile provides two methods to access its own commands within other applications: icons on the Command Bar and Function-Key commands.

The Command Bar can be displayed by a "command swipe" from the bottom-left to the upper right, or for Fitaly users, by a tap on the command key. The Command Bar contains a row of icons for common functions such as copy and paste. Instant Text Mobile can add other icons to perform functions such as displaying the Instant Text menu, going to the Glossary Viewer, and adding to the glossary. This permits several common commands to be performed with a command-tap (or swipe) followed by another tap on the icon. Of course, there is limited space for icons, and this is where the second method may help.

Instant Text Mobile also responds to commands prefixed by a kind of "Function Key" that consists of two taps on the Menu key. For example, having highlighted some text, Menu-Menu-A jumps to the Add Glossary Entry dialog to add the selection. Similarly, you can add multiple words or multiple phrases with Menu-Menu W and P, and Menu-Menu-M displays the Instant Text Menu. This second solution can be used with a stylus but it makes even more sense when using a keyboard.

Input methods requirements — Keyboards and Fitaly

Input methods have their own unique needs. Selecting an entry in an advisory is very easy with a simple stylus tap. But switching to a stylus is impractical when using a thumbboard or a keyboard — it requires removing a hand from the keyboard to pick up the stylus.

Thumboard users can use the "5-way navigator" control to navigate advisories. The entry currently selected is shown with a small dot on the left in advisories, and the left, right, up, and down buttons change the selection. Pressing the navigator's center button enters the text of the current selection, just as a pen-tap would. Using the 5-way control removes the need to alternate between a stylus and the thumboard.

When using a portable keyboard, the 5-way navigator is not readily available but the standard direction keys can be used to navigate advisories. In addition, the semi-colon key — conveniently next to the right hand's little finger — can be used to enter the current selection. This is simpler than the two-key combination used by some keyboards to simulate the 5-way center button. Naturally, the semi-colon works normally when there are no advisories on-screen.

Expansion with a single key is also convenient with a virtual keyboard. When using Fitaly, the colon can also be used for this purpose (the semi-colon is less convenient for Fitaly users as it is a shifted key that requires two taps). So, typing "thy:" expands "Thursday " into the text.

If you dislike moving the pen away from the keyboard to tap on an advisory entry, you can type enough letters to have the desired word or phrase selected, and you can then enter it directly with a colon.

Other Aspects

Managing Glossaries — Glossary Viewer — Importer

Glossaries are central to getting efficient expansion and Instant Text Mobile provides two major tools to manage glossaries.

First, directly on the Palm device, there is the Glossary Viewer, which provides an easy way to review current entries, edit them, and add new ones. The Glossary Viewer also offers a way to lookup for entries that contain some letters in the short form or in the expansion.

Some global actions are easier to do on the Desktop PC and this is where the Importer comes into play. As the name suggests, the Importer provide simple ways to convert glossaries back and forth between a text format used on the Desktop PC and the Palm Data Base (PDB) format to be used on the Palm device. It can also import lists from other expansion programs (TextPlus and WordComplete) as well as simple lists prepared in text form.

Other functions of the Importer include a tool to merge two or more glossaries and a Viewer that is similar to the one available on the Palm.

Accented letters

Instant Text Mobile includes special features to enter accented letters. Entering accents is normally cumbersome: even with Fitaly, it is a tap and slide instead of a normal tap. Other methods are far slower, causing a substantial reduction in text-entry speed. To make things even worst, the fact is that writers often hesitate on which letters need accents and what they should be.

With Instant Text Mobile, unaccented letters match glossary words and phrases that contain similar accented forms. This means that writers can enter text without accents and let Instant Text put them in the correct form. For example, typing "ver" suggests "véritable" and "véritablement." This may be convenient even when entering short words. Thus, it makes sense to type "deja" to get the more complicated "déjà" and its acute and grave accents — in fact, "déjà" already appears with "dej" or, using jump ahead, with "dj".

Selective Use in Applications

The use of Instant Text Mobile does not necessarily make sense in all applications. For example, there is little advantage in using it with games or photo viewers. In some applications it may even be inconvenient or an annoyance. And yet, there are times where you may wish to use Instant Text Mobile even in one of these applications — to enter a name for a high score or notes about a photo. Conversely, you may wish to temporarily turn off advisories in an application such as DateBook in which you normally use Instant Text Mobile, to make it easier to execute a search command.

Instant Text Mobile has Suspend and Resume commands for this purpose — to temporarily turn advisories on or off. In addition, you can set whether advisories are initially suspended or not application by application. So Memopad always starts with advisories displaying suggestions as you type. On the other hand, Instant Text Mobile is initially suspended and will not annoy you with suggestions when you tap a letter in the Application Launcher to select an application.

Tentative spaces

A space follows almost every word but not the final word of a sentence. As you would expect, Instant Text Mobile can automatically add a space after expanding a word or phrase but these automatically inserted spaces are considered "tentative." This means that if the next key is a punctuation mark, the tentative space is automatically removed.

This is a better solution than adding a final space in a glossary entry, which would require you to manually erase it when not wanted. It is also more economical than typing the space manually after each expansion. In practice, tentative spaces work naturally and rarely need correction.


The PDA has always been the most natural place to take notes and compose emails because it is a device that is always with you. However, though the place was right, text-entry speed was often insufficient to make entry on a PDA practical. This trade-off between speed and a natural place can now be revisited as Instant Text Mobile provides one of the quickest and most accurate means of text-entry.

We believe that Instant Text Mobile makes text-entry so much easier that it is very likely to encourage many users to do a larger share of their text-entry work directly on the PDA, rather than on a desktop computer.

Jean Ichbiah and Alan Jay Weiner