Android! (and OCR!)

Discussion in 'Future Products' started by mikelove, Aug 12, 2010.

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  1. mikelove

    mikelove 皇帝 Staff Member

    Full text of the latest announcement email:

    Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/plecosoft
    Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/plecosoft

    Greetings,

    Two very big announcements to share with you today, plus a new dictionary license and some other minor updates:

    1) Camera Recognizer
    2) Android
    3) Classical Chinese
    4) Other iPhone Developments
    5) Other Dictionaries
    6) Windows Mobile
    7) Desktops


    1) CAMERA RECOGNIZER

    First off, our biggest new feature in years: I'm delighted to announce that for the next version of Pleco for iPhone, 2.2, we'll be offering an optical character recognition (OCR) add-on (which we're calling "Camera Recognizer"), allowing you to instantly look up Chinese characters and words using your iPhone's built-in camera. People have been asking for this pretty much ever since the first camera-equipped Palm OS handhelds appeared back in 2002, and 8 years later the technology has finally progressed to a point where we can include an OCR module in our software.

    A particularly cool aspect of our system is that it lets you look up characters "live" without needing to take a still photo; you simply point the camera (showing a live preview) at the word you want to look up and its definition pops up instantly, something akin to an "augmented reality" system. We're still tweaking the user interface, but a short demo video is available here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x7VTo0656Rc

    Alternate Link (if you can't access YouTube - also higher quality):

    http://plecomirror.com/ocrdemovid.html

    This feature works best on the iPhone 4, but it should also work on a 3GS if it's been upgraded to iOS 4.0; the cameras on the original iPhone and iPhone 3G lack autofocus, so unfortunately they can't take clear enough pictures of characters for our system to recognize them. The iPod Touch and iPad don't have built-in cameras at all, but the new iPod Touch coming out this fall is rumored to be getting one, so that may soon be an option for people who don't want to invest in a new smartphone. We have no plans to bring this feature to Windows Mobile or Palm OS.

    To help work out the last few kinks in this new feature, we're looking for a few new beta-testers, specifically beta-testers with iPhone 4s; we could use a few more testers with iPhone 3GSes as well, but iPhone 4s are where we really need more people since the iPhone 4 hadn't yet been released during our last major beta-test. So if you've got an iPhone 4 and are interested in getting early access to the new Camera Recognizer feature in exchange for sending us feedback / bug reports, send me a note at mikelove@pleco.com.

    This will be a paid add-on module just like handwriting / flashcards / document reader / etc, and as far as pricing, since we have to pay per-copy royalties on the OCR system we're using, and since many of our customers unfortunately don't have OCR-compatible hardware, we're planning to keep OCR out of our "bundles" for now and sell it exclusively as a separate add-on. The price will likely be in around the same range as our handwriting recognizer module ($15 or $12 with an educational discount). Release-date-wise, we're hoping to have Pleco 2.2 out with this feature sometime in September, though we may hold it back a bit longer if we're still not happy with the interface design.


    2) ANDROID

    Perhaps even more exciting, at least for a certain subset of the Pleco user community: we've finally decided to develop an Android version of our software. When it's finished, it should offer pretty much the full Pleco experience on Android: we've already negotiated licenses to bring everything from our iPhone software except the new "Camera Recognizer" feature to Android, including all of our dictionaries (except Oxford, which is not offered on iPhone either), fullscreen handwriting, stroke order, audio, flashcards, document reading, etc.

    The key breakthrough, and the reason we finally decided to go ahead with developing an Android version of Pleco, is that we managed to work out an efficient way to use most of our cross-platform engine (the same basic database / search / flashcard management / etc code used in our Palm / WM / iPhone software) on Android without having to rewrite it, thanks to some changes in the latest version of Android combined with the efforts of a wonderful open-source project called SWIG. This means that most of our software's source code can be written once and used on both iPhone and Android.

    The reasons we're waiting on bringing Camera Recognizer to Android are that, #1, we want to make sure it's actually a success on iPhone before investing any more money in it (though we're feeling pretty confident about that), and #2, rumblings from Google suggest that they may be adding built-in Chinese OCR capabilities in a future version of Android (though their Google Goggles system), which could eliminate the need to develop / license an OCR system for Android on our own; we'd like to at least wait and see if they do add it in Android 3.0 before making a decision on that. But if they don't add it, or they don't do a very good job with it, then we'd certainly plan to move ahead with adding it ourselves.

    And while we won't be 100% certain about this until our Android software is actually released, we're very optimistic that we'll be able to offer the same generous free platform transfer policy on Android that we've offered on iPhone, so you should hopefully be able to move your Palm / WM / iPhone Pleco license over to Android without having to buy our software again (though as on iPhone, you'll be limited to using your transferred license on one device at a time).

    A few caveats, however. Our software will probably only work on phones running the very latest version of Android, 2.2; it may even require Android 3.0, depending on what features Google adds in that and how many phones support it. Also, in order to avoid the sorts of device compatibility problems we've experienced on Windows Mobile, we plan to publish an "approved devices list," devices that we've actually tested to work correctly with Pleco and which we're committed to continuing to test on / fix problems on as they come up. You'll certainly be welcome to install Pleco on any other Android device you want, but we won't necessarily be able to help you if you encounter bugs on it; there are simply too many different Android devices out there for us to be able to make sure that our software works perfectly on every one.

    We will try to make sure we officially support all of the most popular devices, though some of them may not be ideal for running Pleco owing to basic hardware limitations - for example, in our testing we've found that even a lot of high-end Android phones have very poor quality touchscreen digitizers, making the handwriting input system a good bit more frustrating to use than on iPhone. Though we haven't found an Android phone yet with a digitizer as good as Apple's, unfortunately.

    Also, owing to Android Market's very restrictive policies about add-on module sales, we may end up distributing our Android software exclusively through our own website, which means that Android phones that are locked-down to only run apps from Android Market (all of the Android phones offered on AT&T, e.g.) may need to be hacked / "rooted" to be able to run Pleco. Most Android phones aren't restricted in this way, however, and some (e.g. many of those sold in China) don't even support Android Market and can only use non-Market apps.

    As far as release dates, while I'd rather not discuss them at all, since I know I'm going to get 50 emails a week about this if I don't: we're hoping to have a public beta-test version of Pleco for Android by the end of this year. It may not include flashcards or even document reader functionality, will probably have to be installed manually (copy a folder full of files over to your SD card instead of downloading them automatically), and may also be somewhat buggy (though the fact that we're using so much old / well-tested cross-platform code should help considerably on that front), but all of our dictionaries and the fullscreen handwriting recognizer should be available and functional at least. A finished release would then follow sometime in 2011.


    3) CLASSICAL CHINESE

    We've just signed a license for our first Classical Chinese dictionary, the 古汉语大辞典 (Gu Hanyu Da Cidian) by 上海辞书出版社 (Shanghai Cishu Chubanshe, best known as the publishers of the famous "Word Ocean" 辞海 dictionary). This dictionary is Chinese-only - translates from Classical Chinese to modern Chinese (there hasn't really been a serious Classical-Chinese-to-English dictionary published in decades) - but it's something our customers have been asking for for a very long time and we're quite excited to finally be able to bring it to you. Reading 2000-year-old poetry in its original language is a pleasure that shouldn't be confined to Greek and Latin scholars.

    The release date for this new dictionary is TBD - it's a very large title and hence not an easy thing to convert - but a conservative estimate would be that we'd have it out by summer of 2011. It should be available on Android as well as iPhone, and probably even on Windows Mobile too. We're hoping to pair it with some downloadable Classical titles for our document reader, and possibly even a licensed Classical Chinese textbook - since Classical Chinese isn't taught very widely in schools we recognize that a lot of people would be learning it mainly on their own.


    4) OTHER IPHONE DEVELOPMENTS

    In order to get the new OCR feature to market as quickly as possible, and to keep up a steady flow of updates, we're breaking out some of the features we'd planned to include in our 2.2 update and putting them in the next major update, 2.3, instead. A lot of the delayed features will likely be flashcard-related: the iPad has been a *huge* success for us - our ratio of iPad to iPhone sales is far greater than Apple's - and it's become clear that we need to develop a better system for synchronizing flashcards between multiple devices, so we're hoping that we might be able to get some version of that working in time for 2.3. But supporting that will require changes in a number of other areas of the flashcard system, and it's easiest to roll out all of that stuff at once.

    So other than OCR, the main focus of the 2.2 update (which we plan to start beta-testing in a few weeks) will be on user interface improvements in the dictionary and document reader: more customizability in the former and a prettier / more standard / more iPad-friendly interface (including a dedicated definition area) in the latter. The Settings screen should also get a much-needed overhaul, and there are some unsexy but important under-the-hood improvements too, like better multitasking support (should eliminate the need for a "delay before search" option) and support for arbitrary text selection (so you can tap-hold / drag to select / copy out sections of dictionary entries just like in Apple's built-in apps).

    On the multitasking front, a handy tip for users of newer iPhones / iPods: if you go into Settings / Dictionary / Search Results and set "Delay before search" under "Results" to "None," that may make dictionary searches feel more responsive; it can cause keyboard input to get a little stuttery with certain types of search (wildcards, e.g.), which is why it isn't configured that way by default (except on iPads, which are incredibly fast and don't experience that stutter), but we're hoping to fix the stutter and eliminate the need for this delay option entirely in 2.2.

    And one other minor iPhone update: we've now added a page on our website with direct download links for our add-on modules, so if you have an iPad or an iPhone / iPod that's been updated to the latest OS (4.0), you can install add-on databases via USB instead of downloading them directly to your device. (purchases / license transfers still require an internet connection, however) Particularly useful if you've purchased an audio pronunciation add-on but haven't been able to install the (very large) extended database files for it yet. The add-on download page is at:

    http://www.pleco.com/ipdirectdownload.html


    5) OTHER DICTIONARIES

    After not being able to offer the Oxford Concise Chinese-English dictionary at all on iPhone, we've now unfortunately had to pull it from our Palm and Windows Mobile software as well; it's been replaced in our Palm/WM Basic bundle by the ACE + NWP dictionaries. Discussions with Oxford are still ongoing, and in spite of the licensing issues (more a bureaucratic matter than anything else) we have a very good relationship with them and are optimistic we might soon be able to offer the Oxford dictionary on iPhone and even on Android, but we're also investigating a couple of other new dictionary options that might be able to fill the same niche (i.e., a clear, concise C-E/E-C dictionary with a good number of example sentences).

    We're making very good progress on one other oft-requested item, though - a Cantonese-to-English dictionary - and are continuing to explore options in other areas of need too (idioms, character etymology, topical vocabulary, etc); if you have any suggestions for specific dictionaries we should consider licensing (particularly if they're relatively new / in print) we'd love to hear about them.


    6) WINDOWS MOBILE

    The iPhone version of Pleco is currently outselling the Windows Mobile version by about 7:1; that ratio has been steadily moving towards iPhone since our iPhone software came out. Free Windows-Mobile-to-iPhone transfers are running at about the same rate that Windows Mobile sales were at their peak; in other words, we're losing Windows Mobile users at a faster rate than we've ever gained them. So suffice it to say, things are not going well for Windows Mobile at this point. Combine that with the fact that the new Windows Phone 7 coming out later this year is totally incompatible with old Windows Mobile apps like Pleco, and is so restrictive and locked-down that it might not even be possible for us to rewrite Pleco to run on it, and we think there's a strong possibility that Pleco sales on WM will have dropped to almost zero by the end of the year.

    So while we are continuing to support our Windows Mobile software, our primary focus at this point as far as updates is on fixing bugs and on porting over cross-platform engine improvements (new flashcard features / search algorithms, e.g.), rather than on things that require lots of new user interface work on WM (major new features, e.g.); there's simply not enough interest in Windows Mobile anymore to justify investing resources in it which could be used to improve our iPhone or Android software. We're still planning to do at least one more significant WM update with some of the new flashcard stuff we're working on and tweaks to a couple of user interfaces, but I would definitely advise against buying new WM hardware to run Pleco at this point; if you can't stand to get an iPhone I'd recommend a cheap used iPod Touch.

    However, we continue to offer free platform transfers from our Windows Mobile software to our iPhone OS software (not just on iPhones but on iPod Touches and iPads as well), and as I said above we're also optimistic that we'll be able to offer the same deal on Android, so even if we eventually stop supporting Windows Mobile altogether you should still be able to keep using your Pleco license on one of those platforms.


    7) DESKTOPS

    After so many years of talking up / talking down / canceling / un-canceling a prospective desktop version of Pleco, you probably shouldn't take anything I have to say on the subject too seriously at this point, but here's the basic situation.

    We're quite confident that our Windows Mobile software could be rewritten to work on desktop Windows without too much difficulty - we've already built a mostly-functional prototype of that, in fact - but it's also looking like our Android software could be made to run on desktops quite easily using an open-source virtual machine. (in native x86 code, not ARM - we know the official Android desktop emulator is very slow, but this is an entirely different solution that we think would be much faster)

    If we do get the Android version working well on desktops using this method, we wouldn't even need to make a separate desktop version of our software: desktop users would be running the exact same program that Android users would be, just as iPad users run the exact same program that iPhone users do. This would both save us a tremendous amount of programming time and ensure that desktop users had the "full Pleco experience" with just as many updates / new features / etc as handheld users, something we couldn't necessarily guarantee with a dedicated desktop Windows application if the level of interest / sales volume turned out to be disappointing.

    If running our Android version on desktop Windows proves problematic, however, we've got that Windows Mobile port as a fallback, and hopefully within a few months we'll know which route we need to take to (finally!) get a working version of Pleco out for desktops. If the Android-on-desktops approach does prove feasible then we'd likely try to put the tools / instructions for that on our website at around the same time as the first Android beta version, so there's a good chance that you'll finally have a way to run Pleco on desktops very soon.


    Thanks as always for your support and feedback, and please continue directing your comments / complaints / suggestions / bug reports / etc to me at mikelove@pleco.com.

    Best wishes,

    Michael Love
    Founder & President
    Pleco Software
    http://www.pleco.com
     
  2. ipsi

    ipsi 状元

    Well shit. Guess Christmas has come early for a lot of people :)

    That's some pretty impressive news and generally sounds very positive (apart from the Oxford thing).
     
  3. rgbgirl

    rgbgirl Member

    I waited for years for Pleco to be updated and when the update was done my old device couldn't run the new version. I waited and waited watching the forum hoping Android would be added as a platform. Wishing that a desktop version would be finished if an Android version wasn't. I've longed for all the new features and to use Pleco on something other than my buzzing Palm E2 that threatens to give up the ghost at any given moment.

    THANK YOU! You've made my year. My birthday's next week. As nerdy and strange as this may seem to some this is so what I wanted. Pleco for Android is coming and I'll never have to buy another Apple product again. Pleco for Android is a gift that just keeps on giving.
     
  4. radioman

    radioman 状元

    Well all this announcement stuff is nice 'n necessary advancement... but the OCR thing is simply "off the hook". Great to see some real innovation...
     
  5. mikelove

    mikelove 皇帝 Staff Member

    Yeah, that was a bit of a disappointment but I really am still positive about our relationship with OUP overall - talking to them about a number of different things now, in fact.

    You're very welcome! I'm glad we could help - personally I still have almost as many negative feelings about Google as you seem to have about Apple (the net neutrality business this week was just the icing on the cake), but making customers happy trumps any of that, and at least with Android I don't have to worry that saying nasty things in public about Google could get our app banned :)

    Thanks! It's been really fun to develop this - the last new Pleco feature I was this pleased about was the two-finger handwriting clear gesture, I must have spent hours just drawing and erasing characters when we first came up with that...
     
  6. Great! :)

    > we plan to publish an "approved devices list" ... even a lot of
    > high-end Android phones have very poor quality touchscreen digitizers

    I'm on the verge of buying an Android phone.

    Could you post a list of which models you have found to be the best, i.e. best suited for Pleco? Perhaps rating them on a scale of 0-10 or, if only listing the best, on a scale of 7-10?
     
  7. oceanhai

    oceanhai Member

    I'm very excited about your plans to offer a version of Pleco for Android. I've been holding out for that as I think Pleco is the best Chinese dictionary out there but I'm very turned off by Apple products. You won't regret the effort you put into producing your Android version. Android may end up having a larger user base than iPhone someday!
     
  8. Giraffe

    Giraffe 举人

    Actually Android is already outselling the iPhone and projections are that the gap will widen considerably in the next year.

    It has a lot to do with the fact that Android is used by more manufacturers and carriers.

    I'm thrilled about that Pleco is coming to the Android! Now the only problem is figuring whether I can defer my purchase another few months till the hardware compatibility issues are clarified.
     
  9. mikelove

    mikelove 皇帝 Staff Member

    I'd rather not start discussing specific devices yet because of the possibility that Google will add something really awesome / useful in Android 3.0 that compels us to make that the minimum OS version; we won't know which devices will be upgradable to 3.0 until 3.0 is announced.

    Well user base isn't everything - BlackBerry has a much bigger user base than iPhone but far fewer app sales, Symbian has an even bigger user base and even fewer app sales, and at least from what I've heard from cross-platform developers Android app sales aren't anywhere close to iPhone sales yet (made worse by Google's pirate-friendly refund policies). So I think it'll take a while before our software sales on Android match those on iPhone (if they ever do), which is part of why OCR is coming to iPhone first. But certainly long-term we're expecting big things from it, and now that we are supporting Android I'm really hoping that this can be it OS-wise for a while (i.e. that every other aspiring mobile OS - Windows Phone 7 / MeeGo / etc - is a miserable flop and we end up with a nice clean Google / Apple duopoly).

    Well if you go with a very hackable model (like some of the HTCs) your odds will probably be pretty good, both of getting an OS 3.0 upgrade and of finding a ROM that works well with Pleco even if the official one doesn't.
     
  10. Lurks

    Lurks 探花

    I think I just did a little wee.
     
  11. Tezuk

    Tezuk 举人

    You guys are the best. Android, Cantonese, Classical Chinese, next you will be telling me you have a Taiwanese published Chinese dictionary... I am still trying to find a good one myself.
     
  12. sfrrr

    sfrrr 状元

    Oh, and a TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) dictionary, although I know there is almost no demand for such a thing and therefore it makes no sense for you to spend days coding it.
     
  13. mikelove

    mikelove 皇帝 Staff Member

    Let me know if you do - we're also trying to find one of those :)

    We licensed Wiseman years ago just like I said we had, the problem was that a) we didn't realize how difficult the files would be to convert, and b) we didn't appreciate how large / unsuitable for mobile displays the entries were (and hence how much work on the programming end would be needed to make them usable); I still feel terrible about wasting their time on it (and getting everybody's hopes up), but there are just too many other things in our to-do list that have to take priority. Even you as a TCM enthusiast would probably say that Android support is a higher priority than a TCM dictionary :)
     
  14. matai

    matai Member

    Mike

    Great news about finally being able to get Pleco on Android. I can now tell my old zire "only one more year to go", before he can begin to enjoy his well deserved retirement!

    Matai
     
  15. sukitc

    sukitc Member

    Hi, would the OCR work with sentences that run up to down (rather than left to right)? Thank you.
     
  16. Zeldor

    Zeldor 举人

    Finally! Android version with OCR will be great. I hope they will stop making much better phones every year, so I can justify spending so much on one. But well, with Pleco coming on Android, there will be no reason to not buy a phone :)

    So with that OCR thing, you will be able to translate from images too? Can I just open .jpg with some characters [like restaurant menu] and get it translated? :)

    For Android - you should certainly make it work on Notion Ink's Adam. Convince them to send you a prototype :) It should be released by the end of year and should provide new big market for Pleco.

    And selling it directly may be the best option. Still, for some hard to understand reasons, you cannot pruchase apps from Android Market in many countries [yeah, Poland] - you can only get free ones. Of course you can root the phone and fake that you are from another country, so you can gain access to paid apps.

    Sure, Android sucks. But other options are even worse. Too bad Nokia wasted cool Maemo idea. Normal Devian Linux would be so much better than Android.
     
  17. sui.generis

    sui.generis 探花

    I would love for that to be true, but they are starting to smell like vaporware. It was supposed to release this summer. I hope someone with the funds to actually go to market picks up pixel qi or mirasol or some comparable tech to pair with a great power-sipping chipset.
     
  18. Zeldor

    Zeldor 举人

  19. mikelove

    mikelove 皇帝 Staff Member

    Thanks!

    Yes, see the screenshot at http://www.plecoforums.com/viewtopic.php?f=17&t=2432#p18999.

    Yes, but we're not that confident in it - it's finicky about things like inconsistent lighting / focus / skew / etc, and while the live recognizer is finicky about those things too, it's much less annoying when it gets them wrong (and usually easier to fix by just moving the camera a tiny bit). So we probably will support static image recognition, but only as an off-by-default "experimental" feature.
     
  20. goulniky

    goulniky 榜眼

    Amazing stuff, OCR demo stunning, thanks for the continuous stream of innovation and good news...
    I started with Pleco on Palm, moved on to WM smartphones, most recent being HTC but it'll very soon be time to move on.
    I had delayed a device migration for as long as my company would pay for the mobile contract, which will soon terminate - at that point in just a few months, I will almost certainly move on to iPhone, despite all that is being said about Android.

    And despite similar thinking with iPad, I have decided to get one even sooner, so I will need to take a close look at the Pleco policy on upgrades. The question is, what's the deal with 2 devices (i.e. WM+iPad, then iPhone+iPad), is there a bundle deal available? I know about the licence issue, but that's basically a single user license as I couldn't possibly be using more than one device at once.

    I recently bought the online version of the Grand Ricci dictionary, and despite multiple issues with user interface and functionality, one smart thing they did was to allow the app do be unlocked twice from a single licence (e.g. laptop+desktop). In that particular example I will likely stick to one, but that's a nice thought. What's the Pleco policy for this?

    Thx (and BTW, I no longer seem to get the email announcements for some reason)
     
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