Company Sues to Protect Its Version of Predictive-Text Technology

Predictive-text technology, clever software for mobile devices, found its way into business headlines in September when Eatoni Ergonomics sued Research in Motion (RIM) in a Texas court. Formidable ergonomics underpins the technology, so it's no surprise the fight has found its way into the courts.

Predictive-text entry software is built on the idea of reducing the number of keystrokes needed to enter a word without having to resort to text-message shorthand. The technology works in 150 languages and is installed on a number of short messaging service (SMS) cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Eatoni uses it in LetterWise and WordWise, which guesses, then completes, the word a user is trying to enter using a mobile phone or QWERTY keypad. The BlackBerry 7100, manufactured by RIM, utilizes a version it calls SureType to help eliminate typing errors and speed up letter entry. QWERTY is the common name given to the keyboard layout for a standard typewriter. It refers to the first six letters on the upper left-hand side of a keyboard.

Predictive-text technology itself is not at issue in the lawsuit. The dispute is over RIM's use of the technology with the QUERTY keyboard. Eatoni alleges the RIM Blackberry 7100 series devices infringe on its fundamental patent on "reduced keyboards and related technology which look, feel and act like a full QWERTY keyboard." T Mobile is also named in the suit. RIM claims the Eatoni patent is invalid.

Most users find keying letters into a mobile device without predictive-text technology anything but ergonomic. A key press is ambiguous - each key is linked to multiple functions, and each function requires multiple keystrokes. All the extra tapping is confusing and inefficient, and wastes time.

From all accounts, devices with predictive text entry software are simple to learn and use - another way of saying they put the user first and technology second. The February 2003 article on cell phones in The Ergonomics Report(tm) ergonomicsreport.com, a publication for professionals requiring in-depth coverage of current ergonomics issues, cites other technologies used in mobile devices that ergonomists applaud for their usability.

Companies besides Eatoni and RIM have been quick to recognize the ergonomic benefits of text entry software and are marketing variations. Zi Corporation's eZiTap "learns" the commonly used words and phrases of users and automatically remembers them, according to the manufacturer, making text-entry easy and faster on the small-footprint device. Motorola says its iTAP(tm) makes cell phones smarter and simplifies text entry by "iIntuitively" predicting words entered on a numeric keypad. Motorola announced recently it had licensed its iTAP(tm) technology to Acer Communications and Multimedia Inc.

The lawsuit could drag on for years, as both companies will regard the prize - patent rights for technology with solid ergonomics credentials - as worth the fight.

Sources: Eatoni; Research in Motion; Zi Corporation; Motorola