Third party keyboards might seem like an app fad blast from the recent past. But the smartphone keyboard space could be set for a shake up as long time player Fleksy gets a new team working full time on the app. Barcelona-based keyboard startup, ThingThing, announced today that it’s reached a deal with Fleksy’s founders to take over development of the app.
The hope, says ThingThing co-founder Olivier Plante, is that a custom keyboard “phoenix” can rise from the ashes — to offer an independent alternative to the likes of Google’s Gboard or the now Microsoft-owned SwiftKey. Apple of course also offers next-word prediction on the default iOS keyboard.
Against such mainstream claims on smartphone users’ typing fingers, Fleksy’s app touts “powerful” autocorrect technology — which it claims can make sense even if you mis-type every letter of a word. It also supports a variety of gestures to further help speed up typing, and offers personalization options such as themes and different layout options, as well as extensions — such as for sending GIFs via the keyboard.
It also used to offer a cloud service for people who want to further tailor the keyboard’s predictive output to how they type.
Google Play lists Fleksy’s Android app as having had between 5M and 10M installs to date. However neither the Android nor iOS app has been updated since April 2016 — and reviews of the iOS app especially flag lots of problems with lag and the app crashing. These iOS bugs are being fixed in an update today, according to ThingThing.
The team is also security reviewing Fleksy’s cloud services, so that, in CTO Francesc Garcia’s words, “we can enable them again with the maximum confidence”.
Dev work on Fleksy ground to a near-halt after half the team was acquired by Pinterest in June last year. The visual social network did not acquire the keyboard itself, which we were told at the time of the acquihire would be kept running with minimal updates.
Some components of Fleksy have since been open sourced, though the full keyboard app has not. And it’s development of that which will now be led by ThingThing’s 10-strong team, itself beefed up with some new Android developers so it can support both mobile platforms.
ThingThing has its own custom keyboard app for iOS, launched in August 2015 — which has a different productivity emphasis vs Fleksy, with a focus on treating the keyboard as a services platform to pull in third party apps at the point of messaging need (so they become in-keyboard micro apps, with stripped back but relevant functionality to the messaging use-case).
The team also built its own next-word prediction tech to be able to offer its own in-app keyboard, and says it works to a ‘privacy-by-design’ philosophy — by, for example, applying local, on device processing rather than pulling typing data up into a cloud for processing. The Seedcamp-backed startup closed its $400k seed round just over a year ago.
The combined active user-base of ThingThing and Fleksy is 1.5 million at this point, according to Plante. And while the ThingThing app is iOS only, most of Fleksy’s user-base (circa 80 per cent) is on Android where there’s arguably the most pressing need for an independent, privacy-focused custom keyboard — i.e. a keyboard that’s not actively harvesting your search strings and/or trying to serve you in-keyboard banner ads.
“The [Fleksy] team left to Pinterest and then shortly after we started to talk with the founders, even a bit before,” Plante tells TechCrunch, explaining how the two startups got talking. “We were very interested in what they’ve built and understanding the reasons behind it.
“We started to exchange visions — of what is the role of the keyboard in the market, and how the OS is going to evolve in the future… [Our visions were] aligned in values, and — for instance — everything around privacy it’s very strong on their side and it’s always been very strong on our side.
We want to be a very private keyboard. The only private keyboard in the market. That truly believes that everything needs to be processed locally and the algorithm sits on the phone.
“We want to be a very private keyboard. The only private keyboard in the market. That truly believes that everything needs to be processed locally and the algorithm sits on the phone.”
“So we aligned on many, many aspects,” he adds. “We’re now becoming the top independent player in the market.”
Plante declines to confirm whether ThingThing is acquiring the Fleksy keyboard outright, reiterating that right now the message is “we’re taking over development of the product”. But it very evidently has big plans for firing fresh life into Fleksy.
On the updates front, he says the team has a “very, very big” product launch coming in fall, in addition to the bug fix update for the iOS app that’s out today — so Plante urges Fleksy users who might have lapsed to redownload the app. Fleksy will continue to be a free download, he confirms, with some in-app purchases for additions.
ThingThing’s overarching plan, says Plante, is to inject its services focus and functionality into Fleksy’s predictive custom keyboard, so it’s aiming to expand and build on the latter’s core tech and USP via the launch of an open services platform — which is also its planned route for monetizing Fleksy in future (so, yes, no ads).
“We’ll be launching new services and new extensions that I think the Fleksy users of today [really want],” he says, further confirming: “We’re joining the products together.”
The ThingThing iOS keyboard already lets users access other services, such as their camera roll to directly grab photos or a third party service like Dropbox to pull in files, all without needing to leave the keyboard and therefore no need to drop out of whichever messaging application they’re using to grab whatever content they want to paste into their chat.
Last summer the team also added the ability to send meeting invites right within the keyboard.
“With us taking over the development of the Fleksy keyboard we’re closer than ever to this vision of becoming the keyboard as a platform,” argues Plante. “We’ll inherit an amazing typing experience, and at the same time we’ll have the great services inside our platform.”
“We want to take [Fleksy] and then improve it vastly — which reflects the needs of today’s world. With ThingThing we validated the fact that the service platform has a lot of sense. Having services within the keyboard, that shortcuts your daily activities… but we’re opening this vision to other service providers.
“So you could access Spotify, YouTube, all the services that exist that users need, for instance. And with the added value of Fleky being a really great typing experience, with shortcuts to delete super quickly, to change languages within the keyboard.”
“We’ll bring our knowledge and execution in the services part of it and also underlying technologies that we’re working on,” he adds, noting for example that Fleksy supports over 45 languages which gives ThingThing a stronger base from which to build on and execute its services vision.
The Fleksy brand name will stay, confirms Plante, but there will be a refreshed look and feel to the app and logo with the aim of updating designs that are looking a bit tired at this point.
“Our focus is to become the top independent keyboard app but also to provide a premium look and feel, a premium experience,” he adds. “The whole team has been building premium products before and this is what we want to provide users — feel premium but premium doesn’t need to cost thousands of dollars.”
What about ThingThing’s own keyboard app? What’s going to happen to that in future? Plante says the team hasn’t yet decided whether they will continue to run it as a standalone. “We’re still discussing internally about what we will do this fall,” he says. (Although it’s probably a fairly safe bet to predict that ThingThing’s app will effectively be folded into the Fleksy keyboard going forward.)
Another question here is why even Fleksy + ThingThing combined, still with limited resources and a relatively small user base, will be able to compete with keyboard giants such as Apple and SwiftKey-owner Microsoft — and make an ambitious vision of the smartphone keyboard as a platform fly, when essentially all other major keyboard players have opted for exits instead.
It’s fair to say that no one has managed to build significant momentum behind a keyboard platform play — yet.
Responding on this Plante argues that the industry has been distracted by “over-hyped” alternative interaction and input technologies, such as voice and chatbots — so, as he sees it, the potential of the keyboard to universally cut across a smartphone user’s experience has been largely overlooked. And thus remains mostly untapped.
He also argues there’s a very clear strategic need now for an independent, neutral keyboard platform, what with SwiftKey having sold to Microsoft.
“I think that in the startup world and generally in the market people jump on those trends without really questioning the status quo,” he says of technologies such as voice and chatbots. “At ThingThing we question the status quo; that the keyboard, alongside voice, alongside the messengers, alongside the operating system, there’s different roles and the keyboard takes a role that no one is looking at right now. No one is looking at the keyboard in a different way.
There’s also no independent player — and that’s where we come in. To really build that neutral platform.
“There’s also no independent player — and that’s where we come in. To really build that neutral platform. With strong ability in really creating micro-experiences that make sense inside the keyboard. And what makes a difference is then it’s the positioning in the market today. We’re the only independent player in the rich, multimedia keyboard market where you’re able to share GIFs and stickers but also access your services.”
“Our goal is not to replace the apps,” he adds. “What we want to bring is the right value inside a messaging context, or an email context, for those service providers — like Yelp and Foursquare or Spotify and YouTube or whatever.
“It’s like 10 per cent of the value of YouTube will be inside the keyboard. The core offering of YouTube… that’s what we want to provide — inside the keyboard.”
Plante points out that most third party service providers that are stuck existing as apps inside phones are increasingly seeing “less and less screen time” — as a handful of social and messaging giants (mostly Facebook at this point) gobble up their users’ time and attention.
Yet the keyboard could offer a route for these apps to continue to reach users when they are locked inside Messenger, or Instagram, or WhatsApp, or whatever.
“The messengers are walled gardens so the only gate that you have will be our platform,” Plante argues. “And with an active user base, and with literally your service at user’s finger tip — it’s like one button away — you’re there, in all the apps, it doesn’t matter.”
The strategy makes a lot of sense. The key question is whether enough smartphone users can be convinced of the value of switching their keyboard to buy into Fleksy + ThingThing’s big vision.