INNOVATION & START-UP
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The Next Big Thing

Why a Cantonese keyboard is one of the most popular tools in Apple's Hong Kong app store

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 March, 2015, 7:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 1:11pm

For the approximately 60 million Cantonese speakers around the world, typing in their native tongue can be a troublesome process, particularly on mobile devices.

While all modern smartphone operating systems support traditional Chinese characters, the system used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the most common input method relies on the Mandarin-based pinyin Romanisation system.

Though Mandarin and Cantonese are related, the vocabulary and grammar of the two is strikingly different, enough that they could be mutually untelligible if the person reading has no familiarity with the other language.

“If you were to show a colloquial text of written Cantonese to a [Mandarin reader] who knows no Cantonese, he or she would find most of it unintelligible,” Robert Bauer of the University of Hong Kong, a leading expert on Cantonese linguistics, told Quartz last year.

“They are as different from each other as Portuguese and Italian.”

Many modern messaging apps, the majority of which are developed in the US or mainland China, do not recognise the difference between written Cantonese and traditional Chinese (which is more similar to Mandarin).

While there are solutions, such as inputting characters by stroke order, or using alternative keyboard systems such as Cangjie (which assigns parts of characters to different keys), these can be difficult to learn and time-consuming to use.

"For my generation, we prefer typing [with Latin characters], while for the older generation they prefer strokes," said Tiffany Chan, a 24 year old Hong Kong master's student.

Chan said she sometimes types Cantonese words out in the Latin alphabet, rather than using Chinese characters at all.

Which is where Clifford So comes in.

"I've used an iPhone for 5-6 years, and always hoped to make a custom keyboard," So, a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and founder of a small app development start-up, told the Post.

"I knew that a Cantonese keyboard was not available. I hoped to be the first."

Working solo in his part time, So launched Gwong (the name comes from the first character of the name of the language itself, Gwong Dung Wa, 廣東話) in September last year.

Rather than type in pinyin, users can input characters by typing them phonetically. For example, "mmm goi" becomes 唔該, Cantonese for thank you.

After some local press coverage, the app shot up the charts of Apple's Hong Kong iTunes Store, where it remains one of the most popular locally developed apps, giving So a nice little generator of side-income.

"It amounts for less than one tenth of my salary, just enough for lunch and transport," he said, adding that he never intended for the app to be a real money spinner.

"This has been a problem for more than 10 years, when Mac came to Hong Kong the input was very traditional," he said.

"[Cantonese speakers] must always rely on third party developers."

Success brings its own problems however. While So said he gets many emails and comments thanking him for the app, he also gets numerous requests for extra features.

"The more popular it gets, the more demands people make."

Before it became possible for iOS users to download third party keyboards in late 2014, there were a number of Cantonese keyboard apps which could be installed by "jailbreaking" devices to allow users to install software unapproved by Apple, a process the company tries to prevent and warns will void a device's warranty.