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I’ll admit it: I still use a BlackBerry. I also use an iPhone and an Android phone, but I don’t mind being teased by friends when I need to crank out a long email in seconds, because the BlackBerry keyboard is still the best. My thumbs can speed along on its tactile keys without forcing me to look down as I walk, and it never makes an embarrassing word change using autocorrect.

But really, typing on glass keyboards — like those found on iPhones, Android phones and Windows Phones — should be much easier by now. This week I took a look at a few technologies that gave me hope.

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BlackBerry 10 | The keyboard on RIM’s newest smartphone will suggest words right on the keyboard; swipe up on a word to add it to a sentence.

I tested two apps for Android phones that use very different approaches: the $3.99 SwiftKey 3 by TouchType Ltd., which is available now, and Snapkeys Si by Snapkeys Ltd., which will be available free in the Google Play Store Jan. 16. (Apple doesn’t allow third-party companies to take over core features, like the keyboard, on devices running its iOS mobile operating system.) I also got to briefly try out the smart predictive keyboard technology on Research In Motion’s upcoming BlackBerry 10.

Of the two new apps, I had an easier time adjusting to SwiftKey 3, which uses a traditional on-screen keyboard and guesses what you’ll type next by using a predictive language algorithm. It also incorporates touch gestures, like a right-to-left swipe across the keyboard to delete the last word and left-to-right swipe from the period button to insert a question mark.

Snapkeys Si was a tougher adjustment: It abandons the traditional keyboard altogether, forcing users to type on just four squares that hold 12 letters; all other letters are produced by tapping in the blank space between these four squares. Like SwiftKey 3, it uses some swipe gestures, like a right-side diagonal swipe down to create a period. Snapkeys Si aims to solve fat-finger syndrome, giving people’s fingers bigger targets and guessing the words they mean to type.

The BlackBerry 10 is scheduled to be launched on Jan. 30. I got some hands-on time with its on-screen keyboard, and was impressed by its suggested words, which users can swipe up to throw into sentences. This is designed to make the device easy to use with one hand. The BlackBerry 10 keyboard also reads and learns exactly where a user taps each key to better predict which letter to type, so clumsy fingers make fewer mistakes.

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Snapkeys Si | The traditional QWERTY keyboard layout is abandoned in this app, replaced by just 12 letters displayed in four squares.

SwiftKey 3 for Android is an app that has a healthy understanding of how language is used in everyday conversation, and supports 54 languages, including variations like American, British and Australian English. Creator TouchType scraped Internet language data from around the world to understand how people speak in real-life situations — not by studying a dictionary. It then used this knowledge to create a predictive algorithm that guesses what you’re likely to type next, suggesting three options above the keyboard as you go.

This app can also detect where you meant to add a space, automatically adding it in for you. I found this feature to be a handy time saver as I typed since I could just keep going rather than stopping to tap the space key after each word.

During setup, SwiftKey 3 users can opt to give the app access to their Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and SMS interactions so that it can study a user’s language to further understand how the person talks. For example, if someone always preferred to spell “thanks” as “thx,” SwiftKey 3 would learn this behavior and add “thx” in as a word rather than continuously trying to correct it. A TouchType spokesman says later this year the company may add a feature allowing users to customize the app to write out complete words when they type abbreviations, like typing “abt” to get “about.”

For privacy purposes, the app only stores this data locally on your phone rather than sending it back to the company for making improvements. And you can erase the app’s personalized data at any time in Settings, Personalization, Clear Language Data.

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SwiftKey 3 | This app supports more than 50 languages, and remembers how you use words, like knowing to type ‘MacLaren’s’ above.

SwiftKey 3 is free for the first month, and then costs $3.99 to continue using it. The app will remember all of your custom language settings when you upgrade, so you don’t have to reteach it.

Snapkeys Si, made by Israeli startup Snapkeys, lets you see more of your smartphone screen while you’re typing by using just four squares containing 12 letters instead of the traditional keyboard. Although these bigger finger targets made it so I never accidentally typed the wrong square, it took me a while to get used to knowing where each letter was and which letters weren’t in squares at all.

Typing words with letters that aren’t in squares requires using the blank space in the middle of these squares. So to type the word “wish,” I’d find the first three letters in squares, selecting each of them. But the “h” isn’t in a square, so I’d tap the blank space between these squares. In the case of “wish,” Snapkeys Si got it right, but other words were more challenging to type, which frustrated me. Suggested words appear on the right side of the four squares, and tapping one of them adds it to a sentence. Once a new word is added to Snapkeys Si dictionary, it will be suggested from then on.

Like SwiftKey 3, Snapkeys Si only saves your personalized language settings on the phone.

The space key is to the right side of these four squares, and the backspace key is to the left. I added periods to the end of sentences by swiping diagonally down from right to left, and added commas by swiping diagonally down left to right.

Snapkeys Si is worth a try if you’re looking for a fresh alternative to traditional keyboards. But I found that it was a lot of work to learn after years of using the traditional QWERTY keyboard layout. The app is still in its beta, or first version, and the company says it will continue to improve.

Smart keyboard apps like SwiftKey 3, Snapkeys Si and others make typing on glass less painful and more intuitive. Just beware of the steep learning curve you may have to climb to start using them.

Write to Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com.

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Remember last week when I said coding was just writing?

I was wrong. As one commenter noted, it's even simpler than that.

[This] reminds me of a true "Dilbert moment" a few years ago, when my (obviously non-technical) boss commented that he never understood why it took months to develop software. "After all", he said, "it's just typing."

Like broken clocks, even pointy-haired managers are right once a day. Coding is just typing.

keyright keyboard

So if you want to become a great programmer, start by becoming a great typist. Just ask Steve Yegge.

I can't understand why professional programmers out there allow themselves to have a career without teaching themselves to type. It doesn't make any sense. It's like being, I dunno, an actor without knowing how to put your clothes on. It's showing up to the game unprepared. It's coming to a meeting without your slides. Going to class without your homework. Swimming in the Olympics wearing a pair of Eddie Bauer Adventurer Shorts.

Let's face it: it's lazy.

There's just no excuse for it. There are no excuses. I have a friend, John, who can only use one of his hands. He types 70 wpm. He invented his own technique for it. He's not making excuses; he's typing circles around people who are making excuses.

I had a brief email exchange with Steve back in March 2007, after I wrote Put Down The Mouse, where he laid that very same Reservoir Dogs quote on me. Steve's followup blog post was a very long time in coming. I hope Steve doesn't mind, but I'd like to pull two choice quotes directly from his email responses:

I was trying to figure out which is the most important computer science course a CS student could ever take, and eventually realized it's Typing 101.

The really great engineers I know, the ones who build great things, they can type.

Strong statements indeed. I concur. We are typists first, and programmers second. It's very difficult for me to take another programmer seriously when I see them using the hunt and peck typing techniques. Like Steve, I've seen this far too often.

First, a bit of honesty is in order. Unlike Steve, I am a completely self-taught typist. I didn't take any typing classes in high school. Before I wrote this blog post, I realized I should check to make sure I'm not a total hypocrite. So I went to the first search result for typing test and gave it a shot.

typing test speed (WPM) results

I am by no means the world's fastest typist, though I do play a mean game of Typing of the Dead. Let me emphasize that this isn't a typing contest. I just wanted to make sure I wasn't full of crap before I posted this. I know, there's a first time for everything. Maybe this'll be the start of a trend. Doubtful, but you never know.

Steve and I believe there is nothing more fundamental in programming than the ability to efficiently express yourself through typing. Note that I said "efficiently" not "perfectly". This is about reasonable competency at a core programming discipline.

Maybe you're not convinced that typing is a core programming discipline. I don't blame you, although I do reserve the right to wonder how you manage to program without using your keyboard.

Instead of answering directly, let me share one of my (many) personal foibles with you. At least four times a day, I walk into a room having no idea why I entered that room. I mean no idea whatsoever. It's as if I have somehow been teleported into that room by an alien civilization. Sadly, the truth is much less thrilling. Here's what happened: in the brief time it took for me to get up and move from point A to point B, I have totally forgetten whatever it was that motivated me to get up at all. Oh sure, I'll rack my brain for a bit, trying to remember what I needed to do in that room. Sometimes I remember, sometimes I don't. In the end, I usually end up making multiple trips back and forth, remembering something else I should have done while I was in that room after I've already left it.

It's all quite sad. Hopefully your brain has a more efficient task stack than mine. But I don't fault my brain -- I fault my body. It can't keep up. If I had arrived faster, I wouldn't have had time to forget.

What I'm trying to say is this: speed matters. When you're a fast, efficient typist, you spend less time between thinking that thought and expressing it in code. Which means, if you're me at least, that you might actually get some of your ideas committed to screen before you completely lose your train of thought. Again.

Yes, you should think about what you're doing, obviously. Don't just type random gibberish as fast as you can on the screen, unless you're a Perl programmer. But all other things being equal -- and they never are -- the touch typist will have an advantage. The best way to become a touch typist is through typing, and lots of it. A little research and structured practice couldn't hurt either. Here are some links that might be of interest to the aspiring touch typist:

(But this is a meager and incomplete list. What tools do you recommend for becoming a better typist?)

There's precious little a programmer can do without touching the keyboard; it is the primary tool of our trade. I believe in practicing the fundamentals, and typing skills are as fundamental as it gets for programmers.

Hail to the typists!

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