Fleksy Acquired by Pinterest; Will Open-Source Some Components for the Benefit of the Blind

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

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.

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21 Comments

#1 VoiceOver access

VoiceOver access in the app now is not good. I would not be surprised if all VoiceOver support is removed in the near future, and the blind will be left to find a developer who will use the open-source code to make a new app for us.

Good thing I found Braille Screen Input works better for my needs than Fleksy ever did.

#2 I am extremely happy for the

I am extremely happy for the devs.

They wanted to be bought and they were. I hope they got a decent ammount of money for their hard work and I have to thhank them for the initiative they took ** that manyy of their criticisers did not *** of building a decent app specifically to blind and visually empired and to thank them again for opening the source of some parts of the engine thinking yet ion us despites all the rudness going on in the past from the comunity.

I will not judge them. I am not satisfied with the way this app has gone in terms of accessibility, but at the end of the day everyone needs to get money and for you who are not devs be sure that developping software is something very hard if you want to do it the right way and based on flexy quality they definitely did it.

Most part of good devs would do exactly what flexy's devs did: build a pretty darn good app and try to sell it to some big company to get rewarded for their good work ... the difference being that those devs wouldn't even care with the blind comunity ... and flexy devs did care with us.
They did care with us when they built their software and they did care with yus when they sould their software by openning some parts of the source code. So they got their money they helped a comunity and they are still whiling to do it after the product is sould. Is it perfect? Not at all .. but this had a happier ending than most stories had ** most stories did not even have a beginning when we talk on devs whiling to help some relatively minor comunity ..

#3 I just hop Apple would step up

Club AppleVis Member

If Apple could just take the open source and build a better keyboard, our problems would b solved and Fleksy's legacy would continue...

#4 this is very hopeful

App Developer

As one of the initial beta testers of Fleksy, I believe the writers really thought this would have the best application to the blind community, as most others would look at their keyboard. Actually, I remember showing the rough beta (this was still in the days where an iPhone 4S would take thirty seconds to load the program) to various sighted friends involved in the programming industry where we almost universally type without looking at the keyboard, and they found it very interesting. There have been some problems over the years, and I'm still using the offshoot fleksy VO when I must type for a long stretch, but I'm very grateful for syntellia's work on the program. If possible, I will do my best to create a fleksy similar to the one we were familiar with from before. I warn you that I've never written a keyboard for IOS before, and that some of the code may need to be rewritten or written to deal with the only partial open sourcing, but I will do my best for myself as well as the community, because I'd really like to see it happen too.

#5 Fleksy stopped being relevant

Fleksy stopped being relevant years ago, thanks to keyboards like mbraille and braille screen input, I would say braille screen input is almost as fast as the original fleksy but not quite, I don't think we need it that badly these days. the developers stopped having anything to do with applevis and the visually impaired community years ago, they are no loss. Braille screen input does have bugs particularly UK braille but the need for fleksy has gone down considerably, and the developers just couldn't be bothered with accessibility after fleksy vo, there beta program was a joke and I left it very quickly, these days they are no better for us than the ios keyboard, but that's true for most third party keyboards. I think people should remove there recommendations from the app entry itself it doesn't deserve them in my book, I removed mine, and I would be in favour of stripping them of there applevis awards as well. think its got something like 29 recommendations on the app entry based on how useless the app now is, should it keep those recommendations I ask readers, its one of the most recommended apps I think. maybe if users don't remove them or have forgotten they made them the editors should reset that count as I don't think recommendations reflect its current state.

#6 I'm glad, however....

I'm glad that Fleksy was bought, which should give them some money to develop something cool. I honestly think a lot of the people on here were far too hard on the Fleksy developers. Nothing was ever good enough. Something was always wrong with it and as stated several times before, some of the comments aimed at them were downright mean. Unfortunately, I think Fleksy, in an attempt to try to please their blind user base, created a separate app. They thought they were doing the right thing but because they didn't understand how this would come across,it just made things worse. I am so glad they haven't completely given up on us though, and I look forward to following their progress. Instead of constantly sending mean notes, how about trying the new version with accessibility added, and send some notes of encouragement.

#7 I think the way fleksy works

I think the way fleksy works as a keyboard means it has lost all its speed advantages it once had because it limits the typing area to a miserable small area of the screen, so as a result typing is as slow and inefficient as on the real ios keyboard. If fleksy offered a kind of classic option that sacrificed the ability to review text and took over the entire screen like mbraille and braille screen input do I would gladly give it another go. Lets be honest though as they have been bought there probably going to roll fleksy up and encorporate it into something else eventually.

#8 Never really liked it

Even back in the original days when Fleksy was supposed to be incredible, I could never get it. I get the concept, however I felt like I was spending more time fighting the prediction engine than I was actually writing anything. In the end I found it to be more trouble than it was worth.

#9 Reply about Braille Input

The idea that Braille input should or does replace the functionality in Fleksy is very narrow sighted. I did use Braille throughout high school and was quite the fast braile user--both writing and reading. However, I have zero desire to "braille" on my phone. Like it or not, I want to fit in with my sighted counter parts and use a regular keyboard just like they do. I personally think the idea that we should Braille on our phone is so backwards thinking. If Fleksy got back to it's glory days in some open-sourced solution as a third party keyboard, I would be all over that.

#10 If you want to blend in

Then you don't use Fleksy. Outside of blind people, I've never heard anyone talk about it let alone even want to use it. They talk about other keyboards, such as Swipe and SwiftKey, but Fleksy is never mentioned. That's likely why the developers sold it, after all. It clearly wasn't making them any money.

#11 Braille input

I use braille input because, for me, it is the fastest and most accurate way to type on my phone. Although I do not use the same keyboard as the majority of iPhone users, I feel proud that I can type at approximately the same speed as my sighted friends. I do not have to spend aeons typing out the message "See you later."--now I can type that in ten seconds or less.

#12 I think though maybe some or

I think though maybe some or all of the fleksy team have been employed by the company taking over them, so maybe that's why there talking about open sourcing part of it, so that eventually they can stop working on the app. fleksy would never have worked in its original form for the sighted market I know that as they need to be able to see what they type so a keyboard that is the hole screen isn't good for them. but I still think they could have offered an accessible or classic setting within the main app, giving us the best of both worlds use of the mainstream app if we choose but without having to sacrifice accuracy.

#13 I use braille input...

Club AppleVis Member

I liked Fleksy, but I am fastest with braille input. The best thing would be if they were to make the translation faster. I sometimes type faster than the keyboard can keep up with. MBraille is still my favorite over the built-in braille keyboard because it not only clicks to let me know my input is taking place, but it keeps up. If a third party keyboard can do that, I don't know why the built-in one cannot.

I think Fleksy was great for its time, but once the developers tried to make it what it wasn't (i.e. a mainstream keyboard for all users with lots of fancy bells and whistles), they completely lost the plot.

#14 Maybe its just me but I don't

Maybe its just me but I don't find mbraille's accuracy anywhere near as good as the built in braille screen input, it has some really nice features but I find I am just correcting so much of what I type with braille it ends up being far quicker to type with built in input. also mrbrailles braille tables seem much more accurate than apples built in ones which has some very strange issues with UK braille that Mbraille doesn't seem to have, if accuracy was a bit better or as good as b s I I would probably switch to it. as of course also you can't set braille screen input to come on by default instead of the normal keyboard like you can with Mbraille.

#15 RIP Fleksy

Yes, i think we safely can call Fleksy in its current great incarnation abandonware. Surely it will stay in the appstore, but sadly there won't be any new updates, probably only maintenance ones. Now we can soon look forward to yet another lame Fleksy VO version that won't function as it should, namely as a third party keyboard but with a load of extra hoops to jump through just because we can't see, but that's how the blind community wants it. I for one guess i'll have to find an alternative keyboard that's just as fast and as accessible as Fleksy once was. It saddens me that this has happened, but that's the way of the market and the world.

#16 keyboard use for sighted people

App Developer

Actually, fleksy was very popular in general for the third-party keyboards. It's true that I haven't heard that many people talk about it lately, but it did have some popularity, reaching number 6 in paid apps around the time of IOS8.
Also, the original fleksy was useful for those who typically typed on QWERTY keyboards without looking at them. I had demonstrated the initial beta to some sighted acquaintances, and they really liked the idea. I believe one of them in fact signed up to be another beta tester. Since I spend most of my time typing on a QWERTY keyboard, and because my typing speed on it is pretty fast, fleksy was very useful to me. That's why I'm planning on seeing what I can do when they release the open source components (any news on that by the way?).

#17 Fingers and toes crossed.

Club AppleVis Member

Hopefully someone with the requisite skills will be able to make good use of the publically available material. I really miss very fast and accurate typing.

#18 Happy Typing

I was an early purchaser of Fleksy. I was excited by the promise back then, long before third party keyboards. Then, we all know the story. I am still waiting for something that delivers that promised fast, accurate typing.

#19 I'm willing to try, let's see the code

App Developer

I'm not the most experienced, but I'm willing to give the revamped fleksy some of my coding time, and can probably bring several IOS coders on board temporarily. However, I'm wondering how much code will be released. If, for example, they release the entire prediction engine, the problem is essentially making a interface and puzzling out the best way to manage the third party keyboard extension. If, however, they only have certain parts, the coders will need to fill in the blanks without the experience of the original devs. Such is the life of open source aabandonware--the promise is great, but so are the challenges. I was wondering if there is any timeline or prediction for what will be released and when and how it will be released? For example, the papa sangre people were planning on open sourcing that and I think nothing happened for a few months. I understand that it will take them some time to do that, but I'm eager to gauge the possibilities.

#20 So much that needs to be worked out.

Club AppleVis Member

It would be very nice if someone in the know could let us know whether it is enough code to genuinely be useful and exciting, or whether it will only be disjointed bits.

I wonder if it might be something like they will release the remains of FleksiVO?

#21 Pinterest and Fleksy

Club AppleVis Member

I would like to see Pinterest put Fleksy VO back in the Apps Store. I use the Fleksy Keyboard and find it much faster than the standard iOS keyboard for typing. I have never been able to type as fast with the Fleksy Keyboard as I could with Fleksy VO so I would love to see it available again. Perhaps this is easier said than done with the various iOS releases we've seen since Fleksy VO was removed. I would think getting it up to speed with the same functionality it always had would be the greatest benefit to the visually impaired community and hopefully not take much resources to do so.