Tegic Lets Your Fingers Do The Talking Through the Internet

In their race to roll out Net-ready smart phones, smart pagers and wireless PDAs, manufacturers have somehow neglected the obvious conundrum that handheld Internet devices are, well, small and getting smaller and fingers remain, well um, fat.

“The industry has been facing a dilemma: the need to downsize handsets versus the need to provide easier use, especially for the ever expanding range of value-added services,” says Phil Cristal, product manager for Seimens International. There’s no room for qwerty keyboards and having to plug one in seriously compromises the convenience of a wireless phone, he adds, and voice-data input remains a dicey proposition.

A solution is vital because more than 250 million new Net-ready wireless handsets are expected to be shipped worldwide this year according to IDC which predicts that handheld devices will surpass unit sales of PCs by 2004.

Seattle-based Tegic Communications has addressed the problem with a linquistic database which lets people enter words using a standard telephone keypad. It works on algorithms that resemble an obsessive compulsive who finishes sentences for you. While each key on a phone pad has a possible three letters, (the number 2 could be read as “A”: or “B” or “C,”) the software resolves combinations into word strings that keep changing until the user okays it by hitting the pound sign, which acts as would a spacebar. Earlier phone-pad software made you scroll for each letter rather than providing whole words.

Early adopters of this system include Psion, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Motorola Inc. (MOT), Ericsson, and Nokia Corp. (NOK)

Tegic was founded in November, 1995 by Executive Vice President
Martin King, Clifford Kushler, vice president of research and development, and Dale Grover, a shareholder and co-inventor of the T-9 technology. They scraped $450,000 of their own resources with the help of “friends and family.”

They followed up in 1997 with a convertible debt offering of $250,000, which then was matched by another $250,000 from executive board members. In 1998 they got their first venture capital round of $5 million from Benaroy Capital, Fluke Venture Capital and Kirlan Venture Capital.

The company was formed with the idea of designing digital input eyeglasses with an embedded system that could respond to the eye movements for computer users whose disbililities prevented them from using a keyboard. In the process, they developed the phone keypad linguistic database technology. (A phone pad proved compact and familiar input image for the glasses.)

Exploring its commercial value, they first offered it to then-forming Symbian group in mid-1998.(They’re still working on the glasses.)

In June, the company announced it had raised another $10 million in private capital from Oak Investment Partners, Voyager Capital, Northwest Venture Associates, Fluke Venture Capital and Kirlan Venture Capital. The company plans a public offering “early next year,” according to CEO and President Robert Hart.

Huge growth is expected in the wireless phone market, and we believe there will be tremendous opportunities for Tegic,” said Bill McAleer, managing director of Voyager Capital.

While Bill McAleer, managing director of Voyager Capital predicts “tremendous opportunities for Tegic,” Joe Jasin, partner in industry association, Wireless PDA Group said “It’s too early to tell” if Tegic’s technology will make data input simple enough for mass market adoption. “It’s going to take a year to play out,” he says. Time, it seems, will determine if people want to let their fingers do the talking.

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