Friday, March 21, 2014

Japanese on Android 2014

I've been writing a lot recently about the aedict 3 Japanese dictionary. I guess that says a lot about how important the app is for me, plus its one of the topics I know gets attention (there's no point talking to an empty room, right?*). In my previous post I touched on the various problems with Japanese on Android, and how far things have come, and I think now is an interesting time to look at the situation in more detail.

Firstly, some background: I first got a smartphone to integrate my mp3 player, phone, and my (super-chunky) electronic dictionary into one device. Juggling all three on the bumpity bus to work each day was somewhat tiring. That was something like 2010 or so.

Four years have passed and my phone has retired**, I've transitioned to a 7" Google Nexus tablet (the first version), and gone back to using a non-smartphone***. This reflects the fact I now get my Japanese literature in electronic form (Kindle can be coaxed into downloading Japanese books, even if you're living abroad), and the Nexus 7 is just small enough to fit into my trouser pockets if necessary (though given the comments from my wife, I wouldn't say it was a fashionable approach... *4*).

This brings me onto my first point: reading e-literature in Japanese has really become viable now. There are a plethora of pdf readers, and book stores are also adapting to the Android format. The obvious example is Kindle, which is a very nice reader. It includes a dictionary feature, too, which makes things decidedly easier.

However, if you want to read material from a PDF (the format is standard in the sciences and technical journals worldwide, including Japan) standards slip. English in PDFs is easy, I've used several PDF readers before; however, if you're reading Japanese text, you will inevitably come across a character you don't know, at which point you'll probably hold your finger down on the said character and one of three things will happen:
  1. Nothing; Your PDF viewer is rubbish. Do not pass go, do not collect £200.
  2. You'll select just 1 of the 4 characters you want; You must fiddle with text selection widgets. Miss a turn.
  3. The whole sentence will get selected; You must fiddle with deleting the unwanted text. Miss a turn.
Problem 1 is spectacularly common, and can only be overcome by getting another PDF viewer, which will often be exactly the same, or will lead you to problems 2 & 3.

Recently I happened upon Radaee PDF Reader. The text selection works on a more Japanese-friendly basis by initiating text selection after a long press, and allowing you to select more text by simply dragging that press along. Sounds great? Maybe not. Given the "long-press, fiddle" orthodox that almost all the other apps employ, Radaee's method doesn't come naturally. Worse, Radaee's whitespace detection is buggy; for those documents which Adobe exhibits problem 3 (those odd, old-looking, grainy documents), Radaee will insert a space between each letter, so you end up having to edit the copied text anyway.

The above problems are inherent to a host of apps; Kingsoft Office defaults to problem 3, Google's apps default to either 1 (e.g. quickoffice for PDFs) or 2 (web browsing and such).

Where the text selection is robust, as is my experience with most of Google's apps, this isn't much of a problem; however, there is a huge population (I assume Chinese, which also lacks whitespace, also has this problem) for which the text selection is not greatly intuitive.

My next observation is that of input methods. I spent more than 3 years using freely available input methods, and the Google Japanese input is still a pretty solid input method, especially if you use a keyboard much. Nonetheless, I've always dreamed of the ability to write Japanese characters by hand; a function so necessary to looking up words in Japanese. I had high hopes for Hanwriting, which enabled handwritten input; however, in practice it is pretty terrible. Newer input methods appear to have made up the ground; however, and with Swype input, I could easily, and consistently get the right character, despite my terrible handwriting and funky stroke order. My hope is these features will get integrated into Google's default input methods, but I'm not sure what the chances of this are (Google will make more money if you have to buy a keyboard app than if they spend the hours to implement the feature, though it could be argued that increasing usability makes Android more appealing to customers from the start..). I should point out that I now have a Windows 8.1 tablet/notebook and it has Japanese handwriting recognition out-of-the-box (well, I did buy it in Japan, but for overseas users, it should just be a simple, free IME download)

Flashcard programs have been around for ages, and I still use Ankidroid now. I don't think there is much development that can really occur on that front, nor do I think it is needed.

Combine all of the above with email/LINE and a friend or two, and you have pretty much all the resources you'll ever need to learn, and enjoy Japanese, all in your pocket. A handful of enhancements are all that are really needed to make Japanese on Android completely seamless.

*I do that too, mind...

**It no longer connects to any networks, effectively making it a terribly slow, terribly small tablet.. *5*

*** That said, even the "normal" phones in Japan have always been more functional than non-smartphones in the UK, for as long as I've known them. But it looks like non-smartphones are on their way out now, the guy in the Softbank store say they're the only company signing new contracts on traditional phones. Not sure if that is true.

*4* Is that a 7" tablet in your pocket, or...?

No comments:

Post a Comment