Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Originality Bites – CEO Ed Maklouf kicks off our blog.

There is a hum of activity at the Siine office as we pull the wrappers off what we’ve been working on: Siine Writer.

It’s always exciting to be able to offer something new to people and the long days and nights that we have put in make ever more sense as we use Siine Writer for different situations and enjoy the results of our hard work.

As we test, too, one message always comes through – this is different, this is really original. But being different is a double-edged sword. It feels good to be working on something original but when people get their hands on it, “different” can be daunting. The keyboard is the most used interface on the mobile phone, so by definition people are used to it.

At the same time everybody has changed, adapted and re-adopted their typing interface three or four times over the last decade.

First we had three letters on each of our phone number keys and three or four taps to type an “o” or an “s” became second nature.

Language changed too. Abbreviation became the best tactic to minimize typing and a new style was born - text speak - that continues to this day.

We’ve seen this simplification happen before. If keeping messages short saves you money and time then short will be the style of choice.

I am so old (in my 30s) that I can remember when phone calls abroad were expensive, and our once yearly calls to our American cousins would take place with my dad in the background telling us to get on with it!

Then Nokia and Blackberry brought us phone keyboards with different layouts. Some people liked them and some didn’t but they undoubtedly improved what was on offer and people with different typing needs gravitated towards the solution that worked best for them.

But again physical constraints limited usability. Phones are of a certain size, fingers are of a certain size and a row of 10 keys across a phone tends to result in keys that are smaller than fingertips.

Phones did not help matters by getting smaller and smaller and - despite accelerating human evolution - finger size has remained relatively stable over the past 10 years, so no help there.

Then came the touchscreens and surely typing was ripe for reinvention.

A touchscreen keyboard is software so it can easily change its keys. Surely, we thought, we must be in for a mega explosion of adaptive, dynamic ways to configure typing keyboards?

Well, it seems not.

There has been some playing around with handwriting input, which is not everybody’s cup of tea, and some innovations which have to do with how you touch the keys – swiping around or getting clever suggestions for what you are trying to type before you type it.

But there has been little in the way of innovation as to what a text communication interface can be, what it might be, and above all what it is FOR.

Think about it: what activity are we engaged in when we write messages on our little machines? A clue to the answer is probably in your phone right now, in the form of a little yellow face – the humble emoticon: :-)

If all we needed to do when we text was simply type out words and sentences, then there would be no need for this familiar set of faces.

It would certainly not be one of the most successful and utilized “features” on the planet, with billions of the little guys flying around every week.

They may seem like just a bit of fun but actually emoticons are doing something important - more important, in fact, than most of the words that precede them.

They are, in their incredibly simple way, providing us with a fundamental part of communication – understanding the state of the person talking.

Face to face we get this information from facial expression, from tone, from the context. But with the restricted channel of texting we leave our words naked and unsupported, so either we have to use a lot of words or we need to somehow, very obviously, show something about the spirit that the message should be taken in.

That's why you use lots of exclamation marks, emoticons, capital letters and slang. You are giving your friends clues that you are in a good mood or in a hurry.

The penalties for not doing this can be very strong.

When we read a message from someone, our brain “hears” it. So if you send a one-word answer “No.” in response to an invitation, the reader will “hear” this as if you are standing in front of them saying “no”. You probably won’t be invited again.

The same is true of not responding to a message at all. You may be incredibly busy but your contact doesn’t know that. For them, you are simply not responding. You wouldn’t do that if they were standing next to you.

So what the massive adoption of emoticons tells us is that, while typing is important, what is really going on much of the time when people text is social interaction and maintaining social relationships.

And so a keyboard has more to do than just let you type: it needs to let you do the things you do face-to-face – greet people, explain yourself if you cannot engage, say goodbye in a friendly, polite or business-like way, flirt, swear and exchange information. You can do all this with Siine Writer.

By allowing you to add a collection of your own greetings to your keyboard interface, Siine Writer achieves two things. Yes, it can be faster. But what it also does is give you a feeling or a mood, creating a process that is much more like saying “hello” in real life.

You have a bunch of ways you greet people depending on who they are. Some of them may be complex and long - “Heeeey my man, my brother from another mother!” for example.

That’s easy to say. But harder to type. So you might just say “hi” when texting, not because you particularly want to but because it’s easier.

With Siine, you don’t have to do that any more.

We have built a platform that can absorb your personality in text form and we have combined this with a standard keyboard interface, so that your personality is not suppressed in order to save a few key strokes.

What we really love about Siine Writer is it is about human ways of communicating. Not robot. Not factory pre-set. It’s all about you and your friends.

The words we use are a huge part of our personality, just like the clothes we wear and the music we listen to. Technology may be able to pick what it thinks is our statistically most likely next word. But where’s the fun in that?

Siine is made to engage with different personalities and let them become part of the devices we now use to maintain our friendships.

We can’t wait to see how different people adapt Siine Writer to their needs. Especially since you will soon be able to share and explore other people’s Siine Writer set ups.

Let us know how you get on. Stay in touch on the website, blog, using Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, YouTube or even carrier pigeon, if that’s how you roll.

I’ve got to get back to work.



  1. I remember the days when telephone calls to abroad were seen as ruinously expensive. Mobiles too....

    Even now my parents, bless them, won't ever call my mobile unless in an utter emergency as they think the cost will drive them out of hosue and home.

  2. My parents too - I think it's quite a common thing. But nothing wrong with being cost conscious.

    Funnily enough, though, my Mum does love texting. And she even uses all the "btw u r xmas" shortcuts. Although she does get them amusingly wrong some times.

  3. For me, I find you have to be really careful when sending a joke by email or text. there's been a few times when I've tried it and I've ended up pissing people off just because they couldn't hear that it was a joke.

    Almost worse than that is when you send a joke by text then realise they might not get it and have to send another text saying that it was just a joke, then they text back saying that they knew it was a joke....

    Not even worth the bother sometimes.