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Posted Feb. 2004 by Tanker Bob

Textware Solution's Fitaly replacement software keyboard has quite a loyal following in the community. No less than C.E. Stuart Dewar, Datebk5's esteemed developer, speaks very highly of Fitaly. Jean Ichbiah , Fitaly's developer, has a distinguished lineage himself, having led the Ada language developer team to success back in the 1980s. Thus FitalyVirtualT3 afforded a mandatory target for a Tanker Bob look-see!

The Palm Tungsten T3 presents particular challenges to developers. As of this writing, PalmSource has re leased precious little information on the Dynamic Input Area (DIA) API. Early attempts to skin the DIA were done by analyzing the resource file. However, actually changing the behavior of taps and slides on the DIA and hooking into the OS provides a far greater challenge. Textware is the first to master this complex conundrum, bringing their well-known virtual keyboard to the T3.

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The FitalyVirtualT3 keyboard skin replaces the standard wide (three-pane) graffiti skin. The high resolution skin provides a sharp, clear, colorful display. The pop-up panels are also high resolution, and pop up over the main screen rather than on top of the keyboard. This limitation comes from the lack of DIA documentation on how to overlay pop-ups on the DIA.

I held a great interest in ciphers and secret writing many years ago. Letter frequencies and their combinations in the English language provide an interesting study in themselves. Old linotype machine layouts were based on an assumed frequency that still commonly appears in modern usage lists. However, the US Army cipher manual lists a different order. Further study reveals that letter-use frequency varies a bit depending on the type and even the topic of writing or speaking. Common writing and speech produces a different letter frequency than a straight list of dictionary words, though not greatly different.

Based on this analysis, I concluded that Textware based the Fitaly keyboard on Army Field Manual 34-40-2, Basic Cryptanalysis. They selected the eight most commonly used letters— etnroais— which make up about 67% of the letters used in common words to occupy the center area of the keyboard. Conversely, the least common— jkqxz —which constitute about 1% of English usage, fit around the outside corners. Also, the arrangement puts the most common 2-letter combinations like ‘en', ‘re', ‘nt', ‘th', ‘on', etc., together and close to center. Common letter combinations remain the pattern as the keyboard moves out from the center. This works well because the 18 most common 2-letter combinations (called digraphs) account for 25% of all digraphs commonly used in English. The Army field manual goes on to list the most common trigraphs and tetragraphs in English usage.

Fitaly's use of this cipher-based analysis (I later confirmed my conclusion with Mr. Ichbiah) results in the minimum hand movement to enter common words. The location of two large “space bars” on either side of center also contributes to rapid input. The second row of letters from the top provides the product's name—FITALY—in the same manner that the QWERTY keyboard derives its common name. Mr. Ichbiah emphasized in his answer that the use of this method to locate the next likely letter next to its predecessor greatly contributes to minimizing hand movement and increasing input speed. You can read a brief description of the philosophy here. He recommended visualizing the words on the keyboards as you type them, which can enhance input speed. A discussion of this technique appears here.

Other functions like tab, backspace, return, caps lock, etc. appear around the outside of the keyboard. These include a key for the shortcut symbol and the command stroke. The numeric and punctuation keys separate the letters from the functions on the right side. Interestingly, the numbers and common punctuation occupy the same keys with several ways to access them. The user can choose to split the keys diagonally as they are pictured, or use a customizable stylus drag to access the less common function of these keys to match their personal usage. The cursor right/left and field next/previous keys are particularly handy.


Fitaly is not just a keyboard, though. A downward slide starting at the Home icon brings up an application bar. This bar offers up eight user-configurable applications for easy access. Simply drag and tap to swap around through different applications. Tapping anywhere off the application bar dismisses the bar without action.

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Like Ronco, that's not all...Slide the stylus down from the tab key and a window with your 12 most recently used applications pops up. The list uses app icons for quick identification. Again, tapping anywhere outside this window dismisses it. The T3 provides the six most recently used apps by tapping and holding on the Home icon on the status bar, but it doesn't support apps on the card as FitalyVirtual does. The most recent list will not duplicate the apps on the application bar, offering 20 different applications for easy access.

Fitaly includes a large number of configurable options. These may be accessed by tapping on the ‘i' key in the lower left corner, or through the configuration application FVSetup. You can set the keyboard so that dragging on the letters produces capitals or custom keys (including foreign letters w/accents), as well as set the length of the drags. A number of the special keys can be assigned particular functions accessed by dragging in specific directions—up to eight directions per key. FitalyVirtualT3 supplies configuration settings for keys options, pop-up behavior, skin setup, general operation, the application bar, and special sliding options. It even has a calibration test to account for anomalies in the DIA if any exist.

On the T3, compatibility with the on-screen Graffiti 2 provides increased flexibility for the user. Textware covered that ground very well. FitalyVirtualT3 behaves as one would expect when moving from app to app, dismissing the graffiti area, and opening/closing the slider. In my case, I usually have on-screen graffiti active at the same time as FitalyVirtualT3 as shown in the illustrations so that I can write in Fitaly with the slider open or graffiti on the screen with the slider closed. Excellent implementation that mirrors the built-in graffiti area behavior.

So, how well does it all work? Like any input system new to a given user, Fitaly carries a learning curve. Textware advertises up to 50 words per minute for a proficient user on this keyboard. They run a periodic speed contest for users called Don Perignon. The last challenge produced an astounding 78.25 WPM as the top Fitaly-based speed. I've seen the videos from some of these contests, and I can hardly watch as fast as some of these folks tap! I'm not nearly that fast, but I am getting to the point of being able to write my notes for teaching Sunday school expeditiously in WordSmith. The overall combination of letter frequency and digraph placement proves very powerful.

I have a few suggestions for Textware. My primary one involves the limited punctuation accessible. While the pop-up panels provide more than the most common on the number keys, critical ones for me like double quotes for text searches in some apps and the semi-colon don't appear anywhere in Fitaly that I can find. They can be programmed onto a key as a special function, but I think it could replace lesser-used symbols (like the funky bullet character under the < sign on the pop-up) preprogrammed into keys or pop-ups. A dedicated punctuation pop-up would be the best solution.

Also, the function of the Home, Calc, Menu, Find, and Toggle Fitaly buttons on the left side of the keyboard cannot be changed. With the status bar active on the T3, these aren't needed. It would be nice to be able to reprogram them to more useful apps consistent with the silkscreen reprogramming through the Palm Buttons Preference in the OS. The limitation for this latter suggestion again lies with the lack of data on Palm's DIA API, though, and not with any lack at Textware. I wonder if PalmOne will listen to the community on this. These both seem like nit-picky complaints, though, given the excellent overall functionality of FitalyVirtualT3.

Jean Ichbiah and his team furnish excellent developer support for FitalyVirtual. They not only answer their email promptly and thoroughly, but also frequent their web site's support forum. Knowledgeable users inhabit that forum as well. Online registration could hardly be easier. Textware stands out as a class act you can trust.

Fitaly has grown in both flexibility and power since I last tried it. I am impressed with its current functionality, especially on the T3. The small keys haven't proved as much of a problem as I anticipated, and actually help minimize hand movement for rapid input. As I write this, FitalyVirtual stands alone as the sole non-QWERTY T3 soft keyboard replacement, but it would hold its own even if it wasn't alone. Fitaly is available as a stamp for other devices, a virtual keyboard for Sony's Virtual Graffiti devices, and has also been ported to the Pocket PC. You can test drive the fully functional FitalyVirtualT3 for ten days before registering. Available for $25 from Textware, FitalyVirtualT3 provides an excellent replacement or augmentation to Graffiti 2. As of this writing, I now use it as my primary input method on my T3.

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