Now that it’s been a year and change since Apple revealed it would be opening up access to the system wide keyboard in iOS we’re seeing some pretty interesting stuff going on right within the keyboard. No, not GIF keyboards; something a lot more interesting.
Developers are starting to view the keyboard as a productivity platform in and of itself, which can be used to shortcut the process of sharing other types of content mobile users might need access to as they compose messages, emails and other missives on the go.
One example I covered recently is ReBoard: a keyboard app which launched late last month and includes a command key that can be used to access other third party apps — such as YouTube — right within the keyboard itself.
Calendar app Sunrise also launched an iOS keyboard earlier this year (Meet) that lets users schedule meetings right within the keyboard interface — so without having to hop out to the full-fat calendar app.
Well here’s another contender for the productivity-focused keyboard pile: Barcelona-based bootstrapping ThingThing Keyboard, which sums up what its keyboard app is aiming to achieve with the slick tag-line: ‘Switch less. Do more’.
At this early stage (it also launched in August) it’s not actually offering a Qwerty keyboard, although co-founder and CEO Olivier Plante says that is next on their dev list. So for now its functionality is limited to app switching, relying on users to toggle (via the iOS globe key icon) to the native iOS keyboard if they want to type stuff (or whatever other keyboard they prefer to use).
What can the ThingThing keyboard do right now? It lets users link multiple accounts for other apps and services to provide an in-keyboard shortcut when they want to check on something like their availability (via calendar integration), or grab a document (via Dropbox), or a photo (from their camera roll) to include in the missive they’re composing.
Point is messaging on mobile is huge, so anything that reduces friction around content sharing via the mobile keyboard is likely to find fans.
The current version of ThingThing lets users link the iOS calendar and photos app to the keyboard, plus third party apps Instagram, Facebook and Flickr, and cloud services Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, Pocket and Wunderlist — content from any or all of which can then be accessed and shared (via ThingThing’s sharing button) into whatever message the user is typing.
The team plans to integrate with more apps and services as they continue developing the app. The first pass of integrations was selected by asking users what they wanted easier access to when they’re typing, says Plante. The overall idea for the keyboard came to him when he was working as a consultant — and received an email from a client asking if he was free to meet the following week, and requesting he send a particular document.
“I started like most of us would do switching between apps, so I switched from my email app to my calendar, I check my availability, I note that down, and I went back into my mail app — it was super painful! And then after I went in my Dropbox app and I copied and pasted the link, which is sort of complicated when you think about it and when you do it,” says Plante.
Along with his co-founder, his first thought was to create a messaging app — but they soon realized they were making a rod for their own back by directly trying to compete with behemoths like WhatsApp.
“We said to ourselves let’s… create an app like WhatsApp where you can share whatever you want from wherever, and it didn’t feel right. And when we were asking for users… we started to say this is really not the approach. Maybe we could find another one. And then we saw the Keyboard API from iOS and we said ‘wow, this is amazing’, because you could have everything under your keyboard — right at the moment you need it. And all organized in a way that you feel it’s natural.”
Plante says ThingThing’s focus is “user-centered design” — adding: “we’re really focused on UX and UI” — and that certainly shows in the product, even in v1.1 of the app, which has a clean-looking interface and an intuitive workflow. A lot more intuitive than the rather fiddly command-key approach of the rival ReBoard app, imo.
Part of the intuitive design is also about designing the functionality that is available to the user when they pull a third party service into the keyboard — so instead of dumping them into the full-fat Dropbox interface, say, ThingThing is being selective with the features it offers to fit with its mobile productivity and sharing-focused ethos.
“We work them based on does it make sense for the user? What do you really need when you are typing a message? Our goal is not to integrate whatever because why not. We want to make it make sense for people,” says Plante. “We want to make it super coherent.”
The grander aim is to become a “people’s content hub”, he says, hinting at more ambitious plans around making users’ digital content more accessible. So where other keyboard makers concern themselves with enhancing the typing experience — a la SwiftKey, Swype, Fleksy and so on — ThingThing is putting its emphasis squarely on sharing. “Sharing your availability, sharing your pictures, sharing your files, sharing your stuff,” adds Plante.
There is an iOS limitation the team is having to work with (and around) for now, which is that they have to use cut and paste to transfer content from the third party service to the user’s message — and not every third party app supports pasting photos, for instance.
“Inserting a picture directly or a file is limited by Apple so we cannot do that right now. However we have submitted our request to Apple,” says Plante with a hopeful laugh. “We’re working on finding a solution or workaround that will make it super easy for the user. But we have this particular limitation of copy pasting.”
“We’ve seen that in some apps, for instance in Outlook, it doesn’t work because of the copy pasting of images. You can still insert links, Dropbox links or any links, text-based, but copy-pasting images doesn’t work… However we’re working on partnerships as well so we’re looking into contacting these companies and building partnerships so they can open that gate for us,” he adds.
In terms of monetization, the ThingThing app is a free download but Plante says they will be adding in-app purchases in future. He also says they have an additional revenue stream scheme up their sleeve but isn’t ready to disclose that thinking just yet.
The app remains iOS only for now. Plante says they’re considering an Android version — and versions for other platforms — but want to get the concept properly polished on iOS before putting additional resources towards developing for other platforms.
Some of that ambition is doubtless contingent on the bootstrapping team raising funding to keep growing the product. “We are in discussion with many investors to raise our seed round,” he notes.