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SwiftKey 3: This Android keyboard is addictive

Newly improved replacement keyboard for Android is faster, prettier, and more mind-readinger.

SwiftKey 3 (inside orange rectangle) is fast and makes very good predictions. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

"It's not a keyboard, it's a movement," Jon Reynolds, the CEO of SwiftKey was telling me, as part of his pitch for SwiftKey 3, the latest version of the product.

No, it's a keyboard, I thought. It's a very nice alternative keyboard for Android that's even better than the built-in autocorrecting keyboard in Android or the one on the iPhone. But it's still a keyboard. And it costs $3.99. To replace a product that's baked into every single phone. Surely it's not much of a business.

"We have a 20 percent conversion rate," Reynolds said.

That got my attention. I've covered the previous version of this product favorably, but every time I see a keyboard replacement startup I cringe, because I know the odds are so long for these companies. Either you get acquired -- Nuance bought T9 and Swype -- or you're doomed to a long and painful dance with the carriers and manufacturers trying to get your software installed on various phones here and there. And you're fighting Nuance all the way.

SwiftKey has, nonetheless, signed seven manufacturers who will be bundling this software on at least some of their devices (phones or tablets).

Reynolds says that being the non-Nuance provider is actually a safe spot to be in. "Manufacturers don't like having just one supplier. Prices go up, innovation goes down." So, he believes, they want to keep SwiftKey alive.

Hey, a mercy date is still a date.

Reynolds doesn't hold out much hope of an acquisition from Google or the like. Manufacturers want product differentiation. "The more Google would control this, the more it would push people away," he says.

For my part, I hope Reynolds is right about his market position, and that SwiftKey stays alive. It is a very, very good keyboard replacement for Android devices. New features in SwiftKey 3 include a Smart Space, which lets you omit or mangle spaces for long stretches, and still not confuse the keyboard, and a clever and usable smart punctuation key that quickly flies out punctuation marks when you hold the period key.

As before, SwiftKey does an uncanny job of predicting what word you want as you start to type it. It uses its dictionary as well as your own typing and writing history (from your Facebook, Twitter, and SMS messages) to learn how you use language.

SwiftKey's value appears subtle at first, but once the 30-day trial period is over and the prediction engine turns off, you're likely to go through a form of withdrawl. Hence the app's high conversion from free to paid. It's worth it.

The video below is from SwiftKey.