Auto(in)correct: The Cupertino Effect


Pity poor Hannah, who received a startling text message on her cellphone, sent from her father: “Your mom and I are going to divorce next month.” After Hannah registered her alarm, her father quickly texted back: “I wrote Disney,’ and this phone changed it. We are going to Disney.”

Welcome to the world of smartphone autocorrection, where incautious typing can lead to hilarious and sometimes shocking results. With the rapid success of smart phones, more and more people are discovering the pitfalls of tapping on a virtual keyboard. Just as the spell-check feature in a word-processing program tries to save you from your own sloppy typing, either by politely suggesting alternatives or by automatically replacing egregious errors, the latest mobile devices are supposed to take care of your typos — but often fail with comic results.

The problem is that the results of such “fat-finger errors” are often not reproducible: iPhones, Android phones and other smartphones learn from the patterns of individual users so that suggested replacements are tailored to the history of a given phone, with a focus on recent and frequently used words. Since every phone develops a unique textual footprint, automatic corrections can vary from one device to another.

Despite these idiosyncrasies, amusement and frustration at the incorrectness of autocorrect are near-universal, particularly for users of the iPhone. Because the iPhone requires precise tapping to decline a pending suggestion, even seasoned users may miss the opportunity to pull back an autocorrected goof before sending it off. Moreover, the iPhone isn’t always adept at handling words typed with letters repeated for emphasis (a common style in text messaging). Thus yeahhhh will get changed to uranium, simply based on the proximity of letters on the keyboard.

Taboo words are another sticky subject. Designers of autocorrect word lists are clearly careful to avoid certain obscenities, even going overboard by changing hell to he’ll when it’s not warranted. There’s a whole universe of questionable vocabulary that can slip through unbidden. To take a relatively benign example, an invitation to a “boardgame night” got changed to a “bisexuals night” — because the iPhone’s dictionary included board game only with a space in the middle, and bisexual shappened to fulfill the “fat finger” proximity criteria.

All of this recalls an earlier era of computer-aided miscorrections. When the 1997 edition of Microsoft Word introduced its background spell-checker, some of the on-the-fly substitutions were a little off the mark. Most notoriously, cooperation was rendered by the autocorrect feature as Cupertino, since the spell-checker dictionary recognized co-operation only with a hyphen. When translators for the European Union started noticing the name of a Northern Californian town (coincidentally, the home of Apple.) creeping into their documents, they coined “the Cupertino effect” to describe such unwanted spell-checker changes.

Microsoft’s Natural Language Processing group subsequently tinkered with its algorithms to make sure that only truly obvious errors are autoreplaced (like teh for the), and it has also continually expanded the spell-checker dictionary to keep up to date (instant updates helped when the first release of Office 2007 didn’t contain Obama, unfortunately recommending Osama in its place). Now much of that R.&D. has been repurposed for Microsoft’s own mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7, a direct competitor to the iPhone and Android platforms. The Windows phone won’t spare us from the cellular counterpart of the Cupertino effect, however. Errant thumbs and fickle spelling will keep autocorrect developers guessing for a long time to come.