The Story of Wang Yongmin and Chinese Keyboard Technology

Category Technology

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The idea of downloading a third-party keyboard to your phone may seem unnecessary to most people, but in China it is the norm due to the need to break down characters into different strokes and assign them to keys on a QWERTY keyboard. Wang Yongmin and Zhu Shoutao developed popular ways to input characters into computers. Pinyin is the Latin spelling of each Chinese character and Zhineng ABC is the most popular way to type Chinese. 800 million people in China use smart keyboard software and there is a risk of interception if apps don't have strong encryption protocols.

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The idea of downloading a third-party keyboard to your phone may seem unnecessary to most people, but in China it’s the norm. Chinese is the only modern language that’s logographic, meaning that the way a character is written can be completely separate from its pronunciation (Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese have their variations of the Chinese characters). Because of that, relying on a default keyboard would be incredibly difficult. So today, 800 million people in China use smart keyboard software that predicts what a user wants to type.

Wang Yongmin and Zhu Shoutao are credited with revolutionizing Chinese keyboard technology

But a strong reliance on this technology also presents a security risk: most keyboard apps transmit keystrokes to the cloud to enable better text prediction, creating an opportunity for the content to be intercepted if the apps don’t have strong enough encryption protocols.This week, I reported on one such encryption loophole found in Sogou, one of China’s most popular third-party keyboard apps. A group of researchers at the Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto–affiliated research group, managed to intercept almost everything they typed into Sogou by deploying a two-decade-old exploit. Not only can this kind of software endanger people’s personal and financial information, but—perhaps more important—it can compromise otherwise encrypted messages in apps like Signal, and allow them to be caught by police or malicious actors.For more information on this particular loophole and the broader implications, you can read the story here.

China began teaching Pinyin in schools in the 1980s and it has since become widely accepted

In August 1983, exactly 40 years ago, a Chinese engineer named Wang Yongmin developed the first popular way to input Chinese characters into a computer: Wubi. He did it by breaking down a Chinese character into different strokes and assigning several strokes to each letter on the QWERTY keyboard. For example, the Chinese character for dog, 犬, has several shapes in it: 犬, 一, 丿, and丶.These shapes were matched with the keys D, G, T, and Y, respectively. So when a user typed "DGTY," a Wubi input software would match that to the character 犬. Wubi was able to match every Chinese character with a keystroke combination using at maximum four QWERTY keys. It’s considered one of the fastest ways to type Chinese, but the downside is also pretty obvious: users need to memorize which keys correspond to which strokes, so the learning curve is quite steep. (One way people have remembered the keyboard designations? Jingles!) .

There are 800 million users of keyboard software in China today

It may be hard to believe, but pinyin, the modern way of spelling each Chinese word in a standardized Latin alphabet, was only created in the 1950s. In the ’80s and ’90s, China started to experiment with teaching kids pinyin in school before teaching them how to write Chinese characters. One result was that pinyin became an easier and more widely accepted way to match Chinese characters to the Latin letters on a keyboard. To stick with the example of the character 犬 (dog), its pronunciation was standardized as quǎn, so typing Q, U, A, N on the standard keyboard would get you this character on your screen. A large number of pinyin-based IMEs were invented in the ’90s. The most prominent was Zhineng ABC, developed in 1993 by Zhu Shoutao, a coder in Beijing. Today, Zhineng ABC-based IMEs are China’s most popular way to type Chinese.

Wubi is one of the fastest ways to type Chinese, but the learning curve is quite steep

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