Rejoice, long-time iOS users, for you can finally throw off the shackles of the native Apple keyboard — cursing its erratic autocorrect habits for (hopefully) the last time — as you download a third party keyboard adventure of your choice.
Yes, at long, long last, Apple is opening the floodgates to third party system wide keyboards, with its iOS 8 upgrade — due to start rolling out sometime tomorrow. So, so long Damn You Autocorrect; s’been nice knowing ya!
Once you’ve successfully managed to acquire iOS 8, you’ll be spoilt for alternatives to the native iOS keyboard. Because, with Apple firing the developer starting gun back in June at its WWDC event, a tsunami of alternative keyboards are launching iOS apps in tandem — including Android veteran SwiftKey, which is releasing its first system-wide keyboard software app on iOS as a free download. The app will materialize whenever iOS 8 does.
Although SwiftKey’s Android app was a paid download for multiple years, the company switched to a freemium model back in June, backed by a store where users can buy additional themes as in-app purchses. Presumably it’s looking to replicate this monetization model on iOS, although the initial release doesn’t have the store — so for the moment it’s purely a free app.
The opportunity to build a new user base on iOS by offering the goods for gratis is clearly too good to miss. “Getting the technology as widely distributed as possible remains the main focus for us,” SwiftKey co-founder and CTO Ben Medlock told TechCrunch. “So looking down the line we may well explore similar business models on iOS to Android, but for now it’s all about making sure we can get as many people using the keyboard as possible.”
“We were already pushing into iOS [with SwiftKey Note and an iOS toolkit] and that’s why when I heard the announcement the first thing I thought of what not ‘oh this allows us to change our strategy’ but this allows us to realize the strategy that we had in a much more compelling way… This now creates a much more unified way of approaching both platforms.”
How many iOS users does SwiftKey want to acquire? “All of them,” he jokes, adding: “I’m joking by saying all of them but we’re so focused on how we increase the reach of the product and the technology. This is such a key transition. It opens up a huge and very interesting new market. We’re obviously talking about hundreds of millions of potential new customers.”
So why do you, a long time iOS user need to use different keyboard software? Well that depends on how much typing you do. I often find myself typing stories on munching lymphoid. On my phone. Like right now in fact. I’m omna on a train headed to a briefing, and is it’s too busy for a seat so I’m standing up, which means getting out the laptop isn’t an option. But thumbing the touchscreen is. The only ginkgo isx thing is is the typing experience isn’t great.
It’s a rare iOS user who hasn’t noticed its autocorrect feature seems to have a mind of its own. Hence all the above typos. SwiftKey’s software claims it can do a lot better, because it’s personalized to your writing style more I tell funeral intelligently. Which means that just because you once typed ‘funeral’ doesn’t mean it will try to turn the word ‘intelligently’ into the world funeral. It looks at your syntax, slang and the context of your message — who you’re talking to, in which digital medium — and uses that to predict the next few words you’re likely to type.
SwiftKey’s next word predictions appear above the Qwerty keyboard, much like Apple’s iOS 8 QuickType predictions, in fact. The user can then tap once to input an entire word, rather than having to type the whole word out.
SwiftKey’s iOS app also lets you “Flow” rather than tap if you prefer — which means sliding your finger over the keys to form words, instead of henpecking every letter. This input method arguably saves time. It can certainly feel faster, although relying on SwiftKey’s word prediction — so just tapping each correct prediction as they appear — is likely the fastest way to type with this software, assuming the predictions are as mind-reading as SwiftKey claims. (Like any machine learning tech, the algorithm should improve over time, although you can associate your email and social media accounts with your SwiftKey Cloud account so it can parse your personal language archive to get up to speed more quickly).
SwiftKey’s iOS app has been in the works since Apple’s surprise keyboard announcement at WWDC, back in June. A UK based dev team (pictured below) built the app in around three months — working out of an appropriated conference room in SwiftKey’s London office as they raced to meet Apple’s iOS 8 release deadline.
“We kicked development off that evening [of Apple’s WWDC announcement] — the guys started downloading the developer kit,” said Medlock. “The team’s been in there for the last three months… It’s not a bad way to run a project actually. Having a really tight timeframe. One of the thing’s I learnt in running different engineering teams over the last few years is that the best way to get the most productivity is to have a small team working on a really clear project that they all believe it and can get excited about. Then it’s amazing what people can achieve.”
The biggest barrier to SwiftKey ending up on every iOS user’s device is inertia, reckons Medlock. It is actually a multi-step process to change from the default Apple keyboard to third party software, so Cupertino is not making it as easy as it could for users to switch. Add to that, it has given its own keyboard a spit and polish in iOS 8, adding a predictive algorithm of its own (the aforementioned QuickType).
“I think we’re very aware that the thing that we’re competing against mostly is the awareness among the average user that you can change the keyboard, and there are other options. How to do it. That’s what we’re really focused on, primarily,” said Medlock. “I think it’s great that there are lots of keyboards. That actually raises awareness. We expect that the same competitors that we have on Android will be doing the same thing as us and that helps to keep us focused.”
“The fact that what Apple [with QuickType] has built has echoes of the SwiftKey experience we feel quite flattered by. And you start to see a bit of a convergence of some of these principle across various different platforms. We feel like we’ve been privileged to be able to drive a lot of the thinking behind the way the market’s gone. That’s a nice feeling… The core attributes of our technology, that we really believe in, that we’ve been building for the last five, six years, we think are going to stand out.”
He added that SwiftKey’s hope is that momentum will be created for users to download alternative keyboard software exactly because Apple is suddenly taking down a barrier that prevented them doing so before. “What I’m hoping is that on iOS because there’s that clean break it will create some significant momentum around visibility of the changing the keyboard feature,” he noted.
However much momentum there is in the short term, there’s no doubt it’s a huge opportunity for SwiftKey — and one it’s aiming to maximize by having no price on its iOS app. As noted above, there’s currently no store in the app, which it recently launched to monetize its Android app after switching to freemium, by selling custom themes. That may come in time. In the meanwhile users get a choice of two (free) themes at launch: Nickle Light and Nickle Dark.
“It’s been quite interesting to try and chart the right path, so it feels like SwiftKey on Android but at the same time… we don’t trample over what people know from using the iOS keyboard. So a lot of the positioning of the keys, we’ve worked to make sure that it’s as frictionless as possible if you’re coming from the iOS keyboard,” said Medlock, discussing the design of the iOS app.
One neat feature — beyond the keyboard’s predictive smarts — is the punctuation slider (positioned to the right of the space bar) to quickly access certain often used characters, such as the exclamation point and hashtag, by holding down on the key and sliding your finger up to the required character. Much like the accent key feature on the native iOS keyboard.
Another feature which Medlock believes will help SwiftKey’s keyboard stand out from what Apple is offering — and indeed the third party keyboard competition — is a multilingual typing feature which supports dual language spelling without having to switch between different keyboards. Two languages can be supported at once, including English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Medlock added that between a quarter and a third of SwiftKey’s current user-base is multilingual, arguing it’s a strong point of differentiation for such users.
“As Brits it’s hard to empathize, because obviously we’re so bad at languages, but if you come from most of the rest of Europe chances are you speak two languages,” he said, adding: “We don’t know what our competitors will launch with but certainly the native iPhone keyboard it’s language by language, and you switch keyboards.”
And then of course there is Flow — the finger dragging interface that SwiftKey rival Swype also offers. In the initial iOS app release Flow is not supported for the iPad but does work on iPhone and iPod Touch, which is — in any case — arguably the more useful place for this input method, given the handhelds’ smaller screen sizes.
What about the Apple Watch? Given that was Apple’s big September reveal, I ask Medlock for his thoughts. Does SwiftKey see scope to build an input interface that could work there? It’s not an immediately obviously welcoming environment, given that the wrist-mounted device has no keyboard. And Apple is focusing on typing alternatives such as dictation, text analysis that generates auto-suggested replies, animated emoji and even doodling as input and comms offerings for watch wearers.
“How you do input on wearables is still an open question,” said Medlock. “I think in wearables in general there’s a real temptation — or the danger for the industry is that everybody jumps into doing something that is like the way we do it on smartphones. And I think on the one hand it’s to Apple’s credit that they’ve waited until they felt like they had something that was really worth releasing.
“There’s a bit of a similar situation with us, in that we’re looking at wearables and trying to think well what really makes sense here from an input perspective? How are people going to use this in their lives? Does it really add to what they’re doing or is it just another copy of what they already do with their smartphone? The Apple Watch is another chapter in that evolving story. But I think we want to make sure that we’re improving the experience for users, not just creating stuff because it can be created.”