Hey Apple, What The Next iPhone Really, Really Needs Is A Much Better Keyboard

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What the next iPhone really really needs is not an even bigger screen, flatter icons, flexible widgets or live tiles, or even crystal-ball-gazing cards. Or Facebook Home. That list is just garnish compared to the biggie: the iPhone needs a better keyboard. The iOS keyboard remains the most offensive piece of skeuomorphism across Apple’s faux realistic, lavishly textured user interface estate. (Yes, including the mock baize-plus-wood backdrop to Game Center — although that is truly awful.)

The iPhone’s keyboard is a relic of the past in more ways than one. It has barely changed since the phone was first introduced, way back in 2007 — the proverbial ice age in technology terms. Sure it was an excellent keyboard then; reassuringly familiar, pleasingly responsive, forgiving of a few typos. It smoothed the way for physical keyboard users to make the trepidatious switch to glass. But those days are long, long gone. Touchscreens have been the norm in mobile for years now. And digital input technologies have advanced to disrupt the plain old virtual Qwerty. Yet the iPhone keyboard has stubbornly refused to move on. Unless you count a few progressive emojis.

Keyboard nerds will be aware that Qwerty keyboards owe their letter layout to early mechanical typewriters, devised in the 1870s. Qwerty letter order made sense when the metal legs arranged around the typewriter’s amphitheatre needed to be positioned to avoid clashing with one another as they can-canned their letters up and over to stamp on the ink-soaked ribbon. Qwerty was just choreography. It was about giving the machine enough room to manoeuvre.

[Image by Anthony Albright via Flickr]

Such mechanical thinking is clearly redundant in today’s digital word. Now it’s the user who needs room to manoeuvre. But instead of helping the pixelated letters fly faster, by breaking with the past and being more flexible about how users can input text and/or opening up its keyboard APIs to developers, Apple has let the iPhone keyboard become frustratingly staid. Watch an iPhone user composing an email and you’ll see a mime show parody of the past as alternate thumbs engage in a flat-footed tap dance.

Here’s the rub: there are much, much better ways to type on touchscreens. Next word prediction, for starters, has broken the traditional letter by letter rhythm carried down from the days of mechanical typing. It’s a big step up from auto correction (which, yes, the iPhone has). Autocorrect just smooths out errors (when it’s not introducing new ones). It’s virtual Wite-Out, at best. More often than not iOS autocorrect acts like Wite-Out laced with LSD.

The very best virtual keyboards are a lot smarter. They learn your slang and syntax by parsing what you’ve written before, to whom, in what context and use that data to predict what you’re going to type before you’ve even started tapping. Not that next word prediction is perfect, of course. Humans are unpredictable and so it follows is language. But a lot of digital communication can be same-y and therefore predictable.

When next word prediction is working well, firing off a short, generic email can mean just a handful of taps. ‘Running late to the meeting. See you shortly’ would all but write itself on a good virtual keyboard, with one tap per word to confirm each correct prediction. And all those small time and typo savings add up to faster and more accurate typing overall. A flow of words, not a trickle of letters.

Even Blackberry, a company that built its empire atop the physical keyboard only to watch it crumble when touch blasted onto the scene, has taken steps to go beyond Qwerty. Its new OS, BB10, running on the full-touch BlackBerry Z10 injects predicted words above the letter you would have to type next in order to spell that word — so, if it’s the word you want, instead of tapping to type one letter you flick up to type the whole word. blackberry 10 keyboardIt’s not BlackBerry’s only new keyboard trick either. The Z10′s virtual keyboard adapts to its owner over time by shifting the underlying key-strike positions to better suit the user’s typing style. BB10′s keyboard software also analyses the messaging history of its owner to brain up on the sort of words they tend to use to improve its next word predictions.

Now all that is great, but even BlackBerry hasn’t killed off the Qwerty layout or radically disrupted the basic tap-to-type input mechanism (though they have added a ‘flick’ gesture to the typist’s toolkit). In the touchscreen era, the most disruptive text input technique that has gained significant traction was devised by Swype (now owned by Nuance). Instead of tapping, the Swype keyboard lets the user drag a finger to chain letters together to form words. In the full year 2012, Swype was expecting its software to be pre-loaded on more than 100 million devices globally, mostly on Android but the keyboard can also be used on Symbian, MeeGo and Windows 7. But not iOS.

Swype couples its novel input method with word prediction so you likely only need to swype the first part of a word to get the full word to materialise. Then you lift your finger off to start the next word. Typing by swyping looks more like writing — or rather a reporter scribbling shorthand symbols in a notebook. And like shorthand, once you get the hang of it, it’s very fast (Swype currently claims up to 40 words per minute). It also feels fun, rather than hesitant and laborious.

swiftkey flow

Earlier this year Swype rival SwiftKey added its own version of swyping — which it calls Flow — to v.4 of its keyboard software. SwiftKey’s take supports whole sentences being chained together if the user glides over the space bar in between each word. Both Swype and SwiftKey’s keyboard software also offer users other text input mechanisms, including traditional tapping plus next word prediction, and speech-to-text translation options. Customised user dictionaries are also a given, while Swype includes a feature where it tracks new/trending terms that are cropping up in the public domain and incorporates them into its knowledge banks as a daily update.

Nor are Swype and SwiftKey the only keyboard disruptors in town (though, at this point, they are probably the biggest). On the startup front, Minuum is a very fresh take on the virtual Qwerty. Devised by a Canadian startup, the Minuum keyboard doesn’t kill the Qwerty layout but does ditch a lot of redundant space so it can radically squash the keys into the bottom of the screen, as a “continuum of letters”, where they take up a fraction of the space — leaving more room to see other stuff on screen. The keyboard assumes sloppy typing, relying on its auto correct algorithms to pick up the slack.

It’s also worth noting that Minuum is thinking beyond the touchscreen too — looking at how its continuum could work with a gesture or tilt-based input method to facilitate typing on a wearable device, whether that’s a watch or a pair of glasses or whatever. So instead of having to say ‘Ok Glass, start recording…’ perhaps a sequence of subtle head tilts could be used to turn on a video recorder function. Or silently compose a text in the middle of a theatre performance. Privacy and propriety fans will not be amused by either prospect but you can’t accuse this keyboard technology of being stuck in the past. miniuum

There’s also Fleksy’s ‘eyes-free’ keyboard which keeps the Qwerty layout but, in its main UI, minimises what’s on it — replacing some function and punctuation keys with gestures, such as using a swipe instead of an on screen space bar. Fleksy still requires tapping to form letters, so isn’t necessarily the fastest keyboard disruptor in town, but its creators claim their text prediction engine can cope with users typing total nonsense (i.e. not hitting any of the right keys).

Presumably Fleksy is pattern matching where users’ fingers are striking the screen — or would be striking a screen — to figure out what they were trying to type. Its method means that blind mobile owners, relying on their own muscle memory of the circa 140-year-old Qwerty layout, can apparently type on Fleksy’s virtual keyboard because they don’t need to make sure their fingers are landing on specific keys. Fleksy’s system can even work with zero visual cues — i.e. with a visually invisible keyboard. The startup has also rigged up a touchscreen-free version of its software, working with the Leap Motion Controller, to enable typing in mid air.

Fleksy’s take shows that the legacy Qwerty layout doesn’t have to be a mechanical burden holding back typing progress in the digital era, as is currently true in the iPhone’s case. Turns out it’s possible to leverage the old, to forge a-new. And while there are certainly more suitable letter layouts for the words we most often need to type, ditching Qwerty would mean everyone needing to learn how to touch-type again. And that’s a pretty big ask.

Returning to Apple, it has added a speech to text translation feature on the iPhone 4S and 5. And of course there is also Siri. But Siri is a side show. Asking your disembodied robotic butler to fetch you a tidbit of information can be useful — and/or entertaining — but it’s in no way a pure-play replacement for the need to input (lots of) text. Not unless you’re the sort of person who’s happy to disrupt everyone around you when you’re composing an email/writing your journal entry/finishing off a work report. Not to mention being ok with your fellow commuters listening in as you navel-gaze in public. The only way Siri is going to kill the keyboard is if it learns to lip read.

Apple’s focus on Siri may be part of the reason it’s allowed development of its keyboard software to stall. And that’s a problem. For iPhone users, whose Android owning friends can rattle out messages much quicker than they can. And for Apple, because it’s annoying its users by frustrating and slowing them down unnecessarily. In general terms, the pace of digital data-powered technology evolution can seem breathtakingly fast — which makes the stasis of the iPhone’s keyboard all the more strange.

If Apple is worried about discomforting its existing (mainstream) users by making them adapt to a newfangled way of typing it wouldn’t have to do that. It could, for starters, license and add an additional Swype-style input method as an extra keyboard for those who go looking for it. Or let iOS developers create system global keyboards that users can download from the App Store, rather than stymying these efforts by making alternative text input apps remain just that: siloed apps. A smarter native keyboard that runs right through iOS is what iPhone users really want. And really need.

It’s possible that Apple is cooking up a ‘magical and revolutionary’ new type of keyboard or typing interface in iOS 7 that trashes its inner typewriter — and breaks with the past for good. iPhone owners can but hope. Because where the current iOS keyboard is concerned, one thing’s for sure: Apple needs to pull out the levers and get a shift on.

[Image by lisaclarke via Flickr]