An interesting and surprising piece of news today is that Fleksy has been acquired by Pinterest. What’s perhaps most interesting for the vision impaired, is that this may have positive consequences for those of us who remember just how revolutionary Fleksy once promised to be.
For those unfamiliar, Fleksy is a text input system for iOS that on its launch four years ago was specifically designed for people with visual impairments. At the time, its developer boldly stated that “… it is set to revolutionize the way people think about accessibility on mobile devices”. This claim appeared to be well-justified, with Mike May of Sendero Group describing how it “… felt like it was reading your mind. Absolutely brilliant”, and David Woodbridge of Vision Australia stating “… I never thought I could type so fast on a onscreen keyboard. This app is a game changer”.
The potential power of Fleksy was that it didn’t require your typing to be completely accurate. It simply required that you tap on the screen roughly where you thought the desired character was located, and based upon this the app would use some very clever predictive technology to correct any mistakes and read out the word that it believed you wanted to type. If the app’s prediction was incorrect, simply swiping up or down would present you with quick access to the most likely alternatives.
Fleksy immediately became a huge hit with blind and low vision users, earning it induction into the AppleVis iOS App Hall of Fame in October 2012 and selection as the AppleVis community’s Golden Apple of 2012 and Syntellia the Developer of the Year accolade.
Sadly for blind and low vision users, things have changed a lot for Fleksy over the intervening years. In short, it has evolved from a US$15 app specifically for the vision impaired to now be a free to buy mainstream app offering a number of in-app purchases. The history of Fleksy and its relationship with the blind community is a mixed and complicated one, and something that will hopefully be documented and discussed in detail at some point in the future. However, the shift in the app’s focus and its current relevance to blind and low vision users is perhaps best illustrated by a recent incarnation of the app’s name - “Fleksy Keyboard - GIFs, Stickers and Emoji”.
We can only speculate as to why the focus of Fleksy has changed over the past four years. Some will say that the blind and low vision were only ever used as a means of funding the initial development of the app; some will say that the blind and low vision were used as a proof of concept for the technology behind the app; some will say that it’s market economics and the early business model simply wasn’t tenable. We will probably never know the full story, but it’s likely that the truth will involve at least a little of all of the above.
In their blog post announcing the acquisition, the developers state that:
Fleksy will remain available in the app stores for the foreseeable future, so no need to worry about being forced to re-learn to type on a alternative keyboard
However, what’s far more interesting for blind and low vision users is a hint that there is still some hope that Fleksy could once again become the “game changer” of its past:
As a tribute to our incredible community of users we have made the decision to open-source some of the Fleksy components that the blind and visually impaired community grew to love. We trust you’ll do great things with it.
At this point, we can only guess at where this might go, but it does seem like the developers believe that the underlying technology and power of Fleksy still offers a lot to the blind. It will be interesting to see what people can do with this opportunity.
What do you think about Pinterest’s acquisition of Fleksy and what the open-sourcing of some of its technology could mean for the vision impaired? Let us know in the comments below.