Installable keyboards are an Android Advantage

Installable keyboards are an Android Advantage

Summary: Android users can change their keyboard to one of several innovative alternatives. Neither Apple's security concerns nor Microsoft's fears about an inconsistent user interface justify blocking such programs.

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I've been using an Android phone (Samsung Galaxy S4) for months, since I let my iPhone 4S go. Overall the experience is "meh" but there's one feature that stands out and makes me want to stick with Android: Swype.

swype - click for larger version
Swype - click for larger version

Of course Swype is not a feature of Android, but Android is alone among the major mobile operating systems to allow developers to write software replacement keyboards, of which Swype is one. As you'll see in the screen shots below, some of these programs have really interesting innovations.

And I'm only an English speaker. Surely in other languages there are unique opportunities to add value with replacement keyboards.

I won't attempt here to evaluate or compare them, as I have only spent real time with Swype. Some of the other Android replacement keyboards are:

swiftkey
SwiftKey - click for larger version

Apple has said many times in the past that they don't allow such programs for security reasons.  At one level I understand the concerns about security. Apple has kept their ecosystem safe for users in no small part by rigorously controlling what apps are for sale in the App Store. Microsoft is attempting to replicate that model.

aitype
A.I.type Keyboard Plus - click for larger version

So if it were necessary to hack into the kernel or otherwise compromise the OS in order to change the keyboard software it would be reasonable to block it. But I don't think that's necessary.

Android defines interfaces for software to follow in order to write these programs. If I read it right, this is the documentation for the keyboard implementation class and this is an article generally on defining input methods in software.

slide-it-v2
SlideIT - click for larger version

Is there something inherently insecure in letting programs implement such interfaces? There's no reason why such software needs to be particularly privileged, but perhaps, in order to allow a program to implement a system keyboard one needs to give it the ability, if buggy, to make the system unusable. That's just a guess.

I asked Microsoft why they don't allow such programs, either on Windows Phone or Windows 8. A Microsoft spokesperson made this statement:

Input is core and fundamental to the experience of using a phone, tablet or PC, and we’ve invested significant resources in the consistent, high-quality user experience of Windows Phone and Windows 8. On Windows Phone 8, our Word Flow keyboard is among the things that make Windows Phone great for text input of all kinds; whether it’s text messaging, email, or writing a Word document. With Windows 8, we set a very high bar for the quality of the experience and effectiveness of input with the Windows 8 touch keyboard.

I can certainly understand their concerns about the consistent UI. It's a big part of their grand strategy to ape what appeared to work for Apple with the iPhone. In fact, perhaps this really is Apple's main concern with installable keyboards as well, but Apple was too embarassed by their laughably out of date keyboard to defend it.

Microsoft, on the other hand, did a good job with their default touch keyboard, which they call the Word Flow keyboard in Windows 8 and Windows Phone. It's far better than the iOS keyboard and, I think, better than the default keyboard in Android. They point with pride to its prediction capabilities, and they are pretty good. Furthermore, Word Flow supports a custom dictionary you can provide for prediction; I can imagine dictionaries with medical terminology, legal terminology, and so on. Windows Phone looks at these terms, as well as the words you've already typed and the standard dictionary when it predicts.

Even so, Word Flow is not everything I want. I want Swype. (And I'm not the only user who misses Swype.) I want to be able to take advantage of new techniques that developers come up with, techniques that may not be appropriate for the default keyboard in the OS, but that might work well for me. 

I haven't gotten the keyboard companies to talk to me about these matters, but I bet most of them would at least consider the opportunity to port their programs to Windows 8 and Windows Phone, and for sure they would all write for iOS.  The Android interfaces look to me as if most of the work should be portable across any OS.

As a user of all of these operating systems, I'm disappointed in Apple and Microsoft, but I also think they are making a bad business decision. I hope they both develop the good sense to back down.

Topics: Security, Android, iPhone, iPad, Windows 8, Windows Phone

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44 comments
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  • i agree...

    ...I use a WP and probably would stick with the native keyboard, but it would be nice to have the option if you wanted to use another solution.
    toph36
    • windows 8

      TouchPal is available on windows 8. It's not as good as swiftkey but better than non swipe keyboards.
      warboat
  • Yep

    And swiftkey has really come a long way!
    slickjim
    • Yeah, it's really great now

      I remember getting somewhat disappointed by it the first time, but now that I upgraded to a new phone and decided to test it again, it really surprised me. It handles switching between english and swedish better than I ever thought it could.

      My other favorite keyboard is Hacker's Keyboard, which really just is a keyboard with a standard layout that mimics a regular keyboard. Useful for terminal emulators, code editors and things like that.
      Natanael_L
      • Same here

        I remember these bozos err, tech bloggers recommending it and trying it only to be disappointed but, I used it again the other day. Very nice and refined keyboard.
        slickjim
  • I agree!

    I just sent my Nexus 7 off to ASUS for repair (screen discoloration) and pulled my HTC Fyer out of the drawer to use until the Nexus is fixed. HTC did not give the Flyer a "swype" type keyboard, but it was simple enough for me to download Swype and replace the HTC native keyboard.

    But I don't have that option on my Surface RT, meaning that when I'm using the device in tablet mode and want to comment on a website I've got to resort to the paleolithic one-fingered poke, poke, poke method of text entry.

    At the very least Microsoft should offer a "swype" style text entry method option for the stock keyboard.
    dsf3g
  • I disagree.

    My phone isn't a PC. It doesn't need eleven billion apps designed to alter the UX. Installing custom stuff like this was cool when I was younger, running Windows XP, but at my age, I want a phone that just works, and isn't hindered from too much junk.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • I'm with you.

      I, too, used to enjoy messing around with my systems... trying to get everything for free because I had no money. At this point, I want stuff that works without much hassle. Also, I've yet to see a Swype keyboard user type as fast as me on a standard onscreen keyboard. They look neat.. but are they really faster?
      kstap
      • For me, yeah

        I'm convinced that I personally type a lot faster with Swype than I did with the standard Android keyboard, and I'm a pretty good typist
        larry@...
      • Absolutely

        The you haven't seen many people use them, they can be crazy fast especially if they have predictive text that's worth a damn.
        slickjim
      • Absolutely

        You definitely type faster with a Swype keyboard. I'm a touch typist and can go at speeds over 50 wpm when typing code on my desktop computer. Swype can be used with one finger while holding the phone in the other hand and do very nicely. Plus, the longer you use Swype, the better it gets at guessing your next word; sometimes it doesn't even take one letter and it predicts the next word.
        benched42
    • different os's for different needs

      My phone is a pc; in fact, its mostly a pc that on a rare occasion gets used to make a voice call over Verizon's network. Which is probably why Android was the better choice for my usage pattern than Apple or MS. For those that want to stick with onscreen keyboards, its a great feature of Android to allow custom interfaces, for myself I prefer a physical BT keyboard; swype, et al, will never be able to compete with how fast I can type on a regular keyboard..
      rwwff
      • So,

        When you're not in the office with your BT keyboard and you have to reply to an email or send a text, just how fast do you type?
        benched42
        • office?

          Why would my BT keyboard be stuck in the office? It has a battery; last I checked it didn't mind me typing on it while sitting in the truck. Slower than at my desk, but still a good 40wpm or so. If I was really without a hardware keyboard, I could use the voice to text feature, its not horrible. If I were without hardware keyboard, and had laryngitis, the on screen keyboard would suffice, but that'd be pretty slow.

          Thing is, even if I were of a mind to use an alternate keyboard, the need would so rarely present, that I'd not know the gestures required to gain the enhanced efficiency. I'm better off with a mini-qwerty on screen tap tap.

          Don't read my comments as not liking them or thinking they don't have use for many. They're quite cool, I just don't have a good use for them.
          rwwff
    • Okay

      What kind of flip phone did you get? =D
      slickjim
      • Me?

        I'm currently on a Nokia 920.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • Ah, yes

      Some will always prefer to have fewer choices. Or that some trusted, wiser person chooses for them. Apple does a fabulous job of catering to such people.

      I'm not throwing stones. There are definitely areas in my life where I'd rather let someone else decide. Yet, even in some of those areas, I still might want to be presented with 1 or 2 alternatives, rather than zero.

      This is exactly why I've never bought an Apple product for myself. (Though I have bought some for family members.)
      bmgoodman
    • too much junk?

      I would argue all phones come with too much junk. Installing a keyboard layout you like is not junk. It's a matter of choice. You can install and uninstall the keyboard layouts anytime you want. It takes all of 2 minutes either way.

      Junk are those apps on all phones that cannot be un-installed by the enduser.
      laequis
      • Yes, too much junk.

        AKA, over-customization. I'm at the age now, where I want things to "just work", yet still be able to change a few settings to my liking. Customizing everything was cool when I was in high school, but I've matured, and so has my device usage.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • The thing is,

      If you use Swype or SwiftKey and then have to do without it... well, imagine using an old 2 button mouse without the scroll wheel. Yeah, it works, but you could be so much more productive.
      benched42