Tegic Communications, a Seattle-based software company, soon will announce a Chinese-language version of its T9 text-input method. T9 stands for 'text from nine keys', a method especially useful for small devices such as mobile telephones and personal digital assistants (PDAs). It already is being used for many European languages such as Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. Tegic president and chief executive Robert Hart said it was popular because it was fast. 'It is two or three times faster than Graffiti,' he said, referring to the input method used in 3Com's PalmPilot PDA. 'Our technology is perfectly suited for any device that has limited keyboard real estate.' T9 presently supported 17 European languages and the Chinese version would be ready 'quite soon'. 'There will be a mobile phone with T9 Chinese-language input before the end of the year,' he said. Tegic's executive vice-president for business development, William Valenti, gave a demonstration of the Chinese system using a notebook computer. With an image of a telephone on the screen, he used the mouse pointer to act as his finger in pressing the keys. When it first appears, the screen has the six most frequently used characters already on it. These are de, yi, le, bu, shi, and wo. The first character is a marker for the possessive, the second means 'one', the third is a marker for past tense, the fourth means 'not', the fifth means 'is' and the sixth 'I'. If you need one of those meanings, you simply choose its key. If what you want is not there, you use eight of the keys to represent the eight basic strokes of written Chinese. After each stroke, the display shows the most frequent characters that begin with it. Mr Valenti said the average number of strokes needed for a Chinese character was 2.8. Mr Hart said the technology came from attempts to make it easier for the handicapped to use computers. 'We even developed eyeglasses that could type,' he said. The user simply looked at a red dot at the top of the spectacles and a computer translated it, exactly as if one of the T9 keys had been pressed. The key technology for systems such as T9 is what Mr Hart called 'the word-level disambiguation [sic] engine'. This meant a software technology that made it possible with a few strokes to choose the word you wanted. Tegic already has made deals with Samsung, Motorola, Nokia, Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, Texas Instruments and Philips. The software was written in the C programming language and can fit into 100 kilobytes of memory for simplified Chinese or 200 kb for traditional Chinese. Mr Hart said software had been completed in Hangul for Korean and a Japanese implementation also would be ready soon. Tegic is not the only company to have an interest in this kind of technology. Zi Corp of Canada has had an office in Hong Kong for a few years and has also sold its Zi 8 input technology to some companies that make phones. Russell McHugh, Zi's vice-president for business development in Asia, said he was aware of Tegic. 'I have not yet seen their system,' he said, 'but we are constantly developing our product to suit the needs of Chinese users.' Mr McHugh said Zi now had an office in Beijing, with 12 staff. 'We are concentrating on the development of our Chinese-language input system. The Zi 8 input system has been developed in close co-operation with the state Linguistics Commission.' For Chinese users, it can only be a good thing that two companies are working on such input systems. As Mr McHugh summed it up: 'The mobile phone is the battle ground.'