If you're among the early smartphone adopters, SwiftKey is likely to be one of the apps that you remember fondly. The keyboard app that debuted on Android back in July 2010 and reached iOS devices in September 2014 was amongst the first few virtual keyboards to offer features like auto-correction and next-word prediction. Now, nearly 9 years after its debut, SwiftKey brings support for more than 300 languages worldwide. But what's made SwiftKey popular in India, the second-largest smartphone market in the world after China? Sarabjeet Singh, Director of Business Development, SwiftKey India, believes it is the consistent experience offered across all languages that's one of the major reasons for the app's popularity in India.
"We believe that technology should adapt itself to human beings rather than human beings adapting themselves to technology, which is why technology should adapt to whichever language you're most comfortable in rather than you having to force yourself to learn English," Singh tells Gadgets 360 in a telephonic conversation.
In the last year, Singh reveals that SwiftKey's India user base has grown nearly 20 percent and India comprises more than 15 percent of SwiftKey's overall user base, without specifying the total number of users worldwide.
The SwiftKey keyboard currently supports more than 30 Indian languages, including different dialects, and covers all the 22 scheduled languages.
Singh underlines that there is a language team at SwiftKey that helps introduce new language models. "The process starts with gathering a large corpus of text written in a certain language," he says.
Aside from collecting the corpus of the written text, Singh states that SwiftKey's team members analyse the relationships between the words to understand the language and turns this into a language model.
"It is mandatory at SwiftKey for a native speaker of the language to use and check the language model to help ensure the quality of corrections and predictions," Singh points out.
At the time of rolling out Punjabi in 2014, Singh recalls that it was he who used the keyboard for a month and gave his feedback to ensure the quality of corrections and predictions, also helping with other things such as ensuring no profanities or no offensive content is getting included.
"We also rely on a community of wonderful users. We have a VIP community of SwiftKey users who signed up as volunteers to help test our technology and ensure that it meets high standards," he adds.
Alongside using internal team members and volunteering users, SwiftKey has tied up with the linguistic team of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to improve its existing Indian language models and build new language packs.
"JNU was instrumental in helping improve our appreciation for the complexity of Indian languages," Singh asserts.
In addition to supporting a wide variety of Indian languages, the SwiftKey keyboard includes a Hinglish language model. The keyboard also offers Hinglish support for the next-word prediction. This specifically attracts a large number of young smartphone users who type Hindi using Roman script.
"The moment you write 'ky', SwiftKey would not only auto-correct it to 'kya' but also gives you 'hua' as the next word predicted for you," states Singh.
Default keyboard on various smartphones
SwiftKey has partnered with a list of smartphone makers in the past, including Celkon, Huawei, Lava, OnePlus, and Xiaomi among various others. Those partnerships helped the company get a preloaded presence on a large number of smartphones in the country.
"A majority of the OEMs, whether they are Indian or Chinese OEMs sitting in India, are actively having SwiftKey as their default keyboard," says Singh.
Being available as a default option is vital to growing the market presence, says Singh.
"More than 50 percent of people who are using an Android phone, I don't think, know that they have the option to change their default keyboard," he notes. "They just go with whatever comes as the default solution provided by the handset manufacturer which is why it becomes very important for any keyboard provider to join as that default position."
Google's Gboard has also become competition as far as being the default choice of OEMs is concerned. But Singh is "grateful" to have Gboard as a competitor.
"Gboard is a great product, and we are grateful to have good competition in the market," he says, adding that the ability to let users type in up to five languages at any given point of time without switching the layout or without enabling any particular setting helps SwiftKey stand out.
"The keyboard's AI will understand the context of what you have written, and then it will give you the most relevant prediction," says Singh. "This makes us I believe [we are] different because others don't offer a similar experience."
'Bonus of Being a part of Microsoft'
In February 2016, SwiftKey was acquired by Microsoft for $250 million (roughly Rs. 1,730 crores). Singh reveals that support from the Redmond company has greatly helped enhance the user experience.
"It's a bonus, being a part of Microsoft as we are directly able to make use of all these related works that happening in other teams," says Singh. "So we're actively working on projects that make use of cutting-edge technology and artificial intelligence."
Using the resources from Microsoft, SwiftKey was able to recently enable real-time translation that works offline as well. This sits alongside the existing transliteration that enables typing in up to five languages. The SwiftKey team also integrated Bing search last year.
"We're trying to integrate all the features, functionalities, and the best practices that Microsoft AI has applied for existing Microsoft products to make SwiftKey better," asserts Singh.
SwiftKey uses artificial intelligence (AI) and neural network technologies to enable next-word prediction. Singh claims that SwiftKey is one of the first keyboards to use the concept of the neural networks for predicting text input.
Collects user information in an aggregate and anonymous way
Just like any other AI-powered app, SwiftKey enables personalisation by detecting certain user patterns and behaviour. But nonetheless, Singh claims that his team doesn't have access to personalised information.
"SwiftKey doesn't know what you as Jagmeet are writing to whom," the executive tells Gadgets 360. "We only collect information in a more aggregated and anonymous way, which is encrypted, and it remains limited to only your device. Only you have the option to save your personalised language model on the SwiftKey cloud, which is for the purpose of retaining your typing patterns if you move from one device to another."
It is to some extent challenging to improve AIs model while maintaining privacy since there is a requirement of a large amount of user data to train the system. Nevertheless, Singh says that SwiftKey doesn't compromise on privacy. "The challenges are always there, but no challenge can supersede data privacy," he says.
"While following the rules and norms that are there in terms of data security, we have been able to do a very good job of providing a more personalised experience using artificial intelligence," he continues.
SwiftKey presently has a large number of features localised for users in India. There are themes such as a national flag and Taj Mahal as well as the ability to custom design themes based on users' preferences. Further, SwiftKey has a Toolbar with offerings such as calendar support and a location sharing functionality to give access to various features without leaving the keyboard app.
SwiftKey Go for Android Go phones
That isn't the end, though. SwiftKey now also has a dedicated app specifically for Android Go devices.
"We also now have a SwiftKey Go compliant version available," divulges Singh. "We are working with OEM partners who are shipping devices on Android Go. They're currently testing and evaluating the recently launched SwiftKey Go version for their [Android] Go devices."
The SwiftKey Go keyboard isn't yet available for download through Google Play. However, similar to Gboard Go by Google that is designed for low-end phones, the new development from the house of SwiftKey is aimed at first-time smartphone users.
"Currently, we are trying to prioritise the partnerships with the OEMs who are shipping Android Go devices, and we are currently evaluating our distribution strategy on the Play Store for the SwiftKey Go version," says Singh.
Apart from developing Android Go variant, SwiftKey recently improved the original keyboard app by reducing the lag by over 50 percent. Singh emphasises that the company utilised data collected from Indian language models to improve the experience.
"We have been able to reduce the lag by more than 50 percent and the data from the India language model was definitely taken into consideration because India is one of our top markets," Singh tells Gadgets 360. "We take India as a key metric for any new feature or improvement that we build."