What's the one feature for your smartwatch that you absolutely wish you had? A virtual keyboard, right? But when you factor in how many numbers, letters, and symbols you'd have to squeeze into a 1.5- to 3-inch display, you might as well forget it.
Fleksy didn't, however, when it released Fleksy Messenger for the Samsung Gear 2 smartwatch. The app was the first virtual keyboard for a wearable device. Though it isn't widely available to Android Wear users and other wearable platforms at the moment, it's a fair indicator that a keyboard for your wrist isn't a totally terrible idea.
Fleksy has an app for your smartphone, too, and it just released a major update with a GIF keyboard, launcher feature, and new themes. We chatted with Fleksy's COO, Ioannis Verdelis, about how the company started, its vision for virtual keyboards on both your smartphone and smartwatch, and why the team decided that creating a virtual keyboard app for wearables was a good idea in the first place.
Greenbot: Let’s start with the basics: How long has the Fleksy Keyboard app been around? Where did it start?
Verdelis: The idea started around 2011. It was clear that phones had already gotten a lot "smarter" and that you could do so many new things with them—tablets, too. Typing though, left a lot to be desired. The experience was worse on smartphones in 2011 than how I used to type on a flip phone in 2001. Typing was a "necessary evil" one had to accept to switch to a touch-screen. Surely, software could help.
Greenbot: Why put another keyboard up in the Android marketplace? Weren’t you afraid that SwiftKey and Swype had already tapped the market?
Verdelis: Competing with established companies is a motivation, not a problem. When was the last time these companies innovated?
Swiping as an input method has been around since at least 2009; the research for it was done in 2003. More than ten years on, it remains a cool novelty, but not something that has achieved huge market penetration. Swiftkey was a very cool app when it was released in 2010. But again, while some users have found next word prediction helpful, the technology doesn't seem to have evolved in 5 years, and nobody seems to have built a truly smart keyboard, with a truly clean and simple user interface.
So to summarize my answer: when we started Fleksy, we were very well aware of our competition. While these were much bigger companies (and they still are), we also noticed a stale market dominated by a few large players that had abandoned true innovation a long time ago. I am still amazed that with a team less than one-tenth of the size of Swiftkey and Swype, our product has managed to grow so much—overtaking these guys on various metrics—in less than a year of us being in the market.
Greenbot: What differentiates Fleksy from its competitors?
Verdelis: Most other keyboards don't try to solve the typing problem—they try to avoid it by "predicting" what you are about to say, or asking you to swipe rather than type. Though these are useful input modalities, they don't go to the core of the problem.
With Fleksy, we created new algorithms specifically designed for the problem of typing on virtual interfaces. Our algorithms don't look at buttons, letters, or words; these are techniques that are useful on hardware keyboards, not today's technology. Our algorithms look at how you press the screen, where you press the screen, and analyze a wealth of information that you get from the sensor that other keyboards ignore. We call this “geometric intelligence.”
We also spend a lot of time on design. Our first hire was a designer, and even the first version of Fleksy looked a lot better than what our competitors had achieved in years. We've done away with the concept of buttons, and with clutter on the keyboard which makes typing harder.
I've noticed that the Material Design keyboard of Android now follows this "flat" trend, and some of Swiftkey's best selling themes do too. I'm still proud of how far we have led the market on design. It makes a HUGE difference to the typing experience—you look at the keyboard an hour and thirty minutes a day, so to me it matters greatly that it looks awesome.
Greenbot: Where did you get the metric that users stare at their screens for an hour and thirty minutes a day?
Verdelis: From aggregate analytics usage—not personally identifiable—that we get for any users who opt in to collect analytics of their usage. We don't collect what people type—just normal mobile app analytics about how much time people spend on the app and how often it crashes.
Greenbot: Fleksy was the first to get a virtual keyboard onto Samsung’s Gear 2 smartwatch. Why bother cramming a keyboard into a less-than-two-inch screen? And are there plans to bring it to Android Wear?
Verdelis: Many Android phones also have smaller screens and our Geometric Intelligence works insanely well on them. Honestly, I was the biggest skeptic, until I tried it hands on. I suggest you do the same—it will challenge your assumption of what is possible on a watch.
Does this mean I expect you to write your next article on a watch? No, of course not. Your laptop, or tablet, or even phone is much faster for this. But when you get a text that asks where you are, it's way faster to respond there and then than digging for your phone in your bag.
Fleksy Messenger is a top app on the Gear store with hundreds of thousands of downloads. It seems that people agree that typing on a watch has its use cases.
Greenbot: Any languages missing from Fleksy that you guys wish you supported already?
Verdelis: Chinese. Typing Chinese is a major problem and our internal Fleksy versions are so, so cool. But we can only do so many things with a small team, and we have opted to perfect our product in other languages before tackling this next huge challenge.
Greenbot: Do you guys get requests for weird keyboard skins? Any that you can share with us?
Verdelis: Many users want to customize various aspects of the keyboard. Some want to make each letter a different color, or even size! We have a very active beta community—about 50,000 members—which is instrumental in driving our product direction, even though we won't listen to some of the more obscure requests!
Greenbot: Tell us more about the GIF keyboard and Launcher functionality that Fleksy released earlier this week in the latest update.
Verdelis: In our vision, keyboards are a vehicle that you use to interact with your device. Texting is one of those interactions, and the one that most apps have focused on. But there's a lot more to consider.
We are shipping a brand new GIF keyboard that takes emoji to the next stage with animated images—the first such product on Android. We are also preparing lots of other extensions. As for the launcher functionality, it lets you switch between apps without ever hitting the Home button, right from the keyboard. It's a huge timesaver.
Greenbot: Any fear that loading a GIF keyboard would make some Android devices sluggish?
Verdelis: We are always worried about the keyboard becoming sluggish. It's the worst thing when this happens, and many other keyboard apps suffer from it. A lot of work goes into making sure our app is responsive in all cases—whether you use GIFs or not.
Greenbot: What kind of testing do you do to ensure the keyboard isn’t crashing and burning with every press of a letter?
Verdelis: The average Fleksy user invokes Fleksy about 180 times a day and spends about an hour and thirty minutes with it. It's astonishing how much you rely on your phone's keyboard. That makes it a very hard app to test. A bug that happens one out of 100 times will happen to you twice today if it's a Fleksy bug.
We have a 50,000 member strong beta community on Android which is extremely active. Our product manager watches the feedback on a special screen on his desk constantly. Nothing beats the value of real passionate users putting your product to the test.
Greenbot: Now it's time for personal questions: How long have you personally been an Android user?
Verdelis: I use both an Android and an iOS device, depending on what version of Fleksy I am using. Right now I'm on Android. My first Android phone was in 2013.
Greenbot: What kind of phone are you sporting now?
A Xiaomi Mi4. Besides these guys being partners of ours, this is a truly gorgeous phone which has fast become one of my favorite Android handsets.
I also use an iPhone 6.
Greenbot: If there was one app you could not live without—besides your own–what would it be?