Why the dextr touchscreen keyboard will fail (as seen on Angel’s Gate episode 2)

Angel’s Gate is a new reality TV show in Singapore where contestants get to pitch for venture capital funding of up to US$500,000 for their startups.. It is similar to shows like UK’s Dragon’s Den, but with more Asian faces.

I don’t watch much television programmes anymore, preferring to get my entertainment fix from the Internet. But I was pleasantly surprised by how refreshingly real the contestants and judges came across. The show’s host Philippa Lett was more than just a pretty face, and asked some penetrating questions during the interviews.

dextr is a new touchscreen keyboard app for Android smartphones, featured on episode 2 of Angel’s Gate (aired on 13 Feb 2012).

The pitch: dextr is ergonomically re-designed from the ground up as a replacement for the user-unfriendly standard QWERTY keyboard.

Here is a quick introduction video:

The letters are arranged alphabetically, with the vowels aligned in a column and highlighted in yellow. There are a couple of variations too, including a split layout for tablets and a reversed layout for lefties. It all sounds very intriguing, but the dextr app is yet to be released and has no definite shipping date.

Replacing the QWERTY keyboard isn’t a new idea. Back in the 1930s, the ergonomic and efficient Dvorak keyboard lost out to the QWERTY keyboard. The standard QWERTY was actually designed to slow the typist down, to avoid jamming the typewriter keys. This issue disappeared with the arrival of the computer, but the QWERTY keyboard lived on.

The QWERTY keyboard won out simply because it was already in widespread use when the Dvorak keyboard was introduced. Attempting to change the habits of millions of people proved too formidable a task, and the Dvorak keyboard disappeared into obscurity, popular today only with a small enthusiast crowd.

This is the same challenge faced by dextr. Relearning a new keyboard layout, no matter how intuitive and user-friendly it purports to be, is a chore that most people will shy away from. The QWERTY layout might not be the most optimal, but it works well enough.

Of course, the dextr team understands this fact. So they identify as their target market the 5 billion people who have yet to buy a mobile phone. This fits in well with their strategy of focusing solely on the Android platform, as new smartphone owners are likely to purchase cheap entry-level Android models.

This raises the first problem. Android smartphones already come with a standard keyboard that works well and features accurate auto-correction of typos. dextr needs to be the first keyboard which a novice smartphone user experiences. Once the user takes the effort to learn the QWERTY keyboard, the window of opportunity will be closed.

However, there is simply no incentive for Google (which owns and develops the Android platform) or major smartphone manufacturers to not only add in the dextr keyboard app, but make it the default keyboard too.

The second challenge is that most feature phones (“dumb phones”) already have an efficient text input system: the T9 technology. This allows text to be entered quickly and efficiently on a phone keypad. A novice smartphone who doesn’t wish to learn the QWERTY layout will be right at home with the T9 keypad.

There is simply no compelling need for a dextr keyboard.

So, inertia and credible alternatives are the two reasons I think the dextr keyboard app will fail. Which is a pity, because I like elegant solutions.

This just happens to be an elegant solution to a problem that nobody wants to solve.

In the end, the angel panel made a low-ball offer some 12 times less than the requested funding-to-equity ratio, and was rejected.

(Incidentally, I had some trouble locating the official dextr keyboard web site. For some reason,it doesn’t show up when I entered “text with dextr” into Google. I eventually saw the correct URL in the YouTube video. There are a couple of other products also called “dextr”, including a social networking platform and a Twitter client. dextr.com was already snapped up back in 2005 by another company. I’m thinking that a change of name might be a good move.)

About Hun Boon

A little bit of this, a little bit of that.
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