The Apple move that could nullify one of Android's biggest advantages

The Apple move that could nullify one of Android's biggest advantages

Summary: Android has leapfrogged iPhone in the quality of its virtual keyboard experience, thanks to SwiftKey. But, Apple has a move it could make.

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TOPICS: Mobility, Apple
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Image: Jason Hiner

I've been carrying both an iPhone and Android phone for four years, and in 2013 one of Android's biggest usability advantages over iPhone is SwiftKey. However, there's a relatively quick way that Apple could negate that advantage, and we've got confirmation that it's possible.

In April I wrote that Android's two killer features that are making it better to use than iPhone are Google Now and Swiftkey. That has held true throughout 2013.

The Google Now advantage was somewhat blunted when Google released Google Now on iOS this spring. Unfortunately, Google Now is tucked inside the Google Search app on iOS and it's not nearly as powerful without Android's excellent notification system (the other big Android advantage I've written about).

When a lot of people think of SwiftKey they think of SwiftKey Flow. That's the gesture feature that lets you swipe across the letters of the virtual keyboard without lifting your finger from the surface and then SwiftKey magically translates it into the word you were creating based on its algorithm and what it learns from your patterns.

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The SwiftKey keyboard includes adaptive intelligence. Image: SwiftKey

However, there's a lot more to SwiftKey than that. In fact, I know plenty of users who love SwiftKey but never use SwiftKey Flow. Some of SwiftKey's other key features include:

  • Predictive text - As you type, SwiftKey gives you three choices for words that you may be typing and you can simply touch one of those to complete the word, such as you enter "ext" and it offers "extremely." Even better, it also predicts the next word you're type, based on common phrases and your history. For example, if I type "Jason" it automatically offers "Hiner" before I even start typing the next word. It's a great time-saver.
  • Adaptive autocomplete - The other great thing about the way SwiftKey does autocomplete is that it's adaptive. It learns the words you use and it can even (with your permission) look at your text message history or Gmail inbox to learn more about the words, phrases, and jargon you use frequently.
  • Automatic spaces - When you select a word from SwiftKey's predictive text or autocomplete it also automatically adds a space after it. That may sound inconsequential, but not having to add spaces saves time that quickly adds up (it also enables SwiftKey's "Flow Through Space" feature that lets you do one gesture to enter an entire sentence without lifting your finger from the keyboard). SwiftKey also automatically removes spaces between a word and a period, question mark, or exclamation mark to end a sentence. This is so useful that I take it for granted and expect the iPhone to do it when I switch back and forth between the two platforms.
  • SwiftKey Cloud - If you have multiple Android devices using SwiftKey then you can share your SwiftKey profile between them so that it can share all the intelligence that it's learning about you across devices. It's also handy if you get a new device. That way SwiftKey doesn't have to re-learn your habits, jargon, and patterns all over again.

The combination of all those things makes entering text on Android a much more efficient and nuanced experience than iPhone (as long as you pay the four dollars for the SwiftKey app on Android).

However, SwiftKey doesn't just sell the world's most-downloaded Android keyboard app. It also licenses its SDK to phone makers who want to improve their software keyboards. SwiftKey CMO Joe Braidwood said that between 10-20 companies currently license SwiftKey's technology or are in the process of trialing it, including car manufacturers and companies working on wearable technology. Most of the deals are confidential but a few companies have publicly stated that they use SwiftKey's technology, including Samsung, which uses it in the default keyboard in its Galaxy line of devices, and Vizio, which uses it in the tablets it has released as companion devices to its TVs.

Notably, the SwiftKey SDK is not just limited to Android. It was widely reported last year that BlackBerry 10 uses SwiftKey as the basis of its on-screen keyboard. While neither BlackBerry nor SwiftKey have confirmed it, the evidence is conclusive. Of course, both Android and BlackBerry 10 are Linux-based operating systems so you could argue that's not much of a stretch.

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But, I asked Braidwood if the SwiftKey SDK could potentially work on dissimilar platforms such as Windows Phone and iOS and he confirmed that it could since the SDK is in C++. In fact, he said it would be particularly straightforward to integrate with iOS since it is based on Objective-C. So, I asked him directly if SwiftKey would be willing to work with Apple and he said SwiftKey would certainly be open to it.

Apple should make it happen.

There are four big advantages that Android devices currently have over the iPhone (especially for power users): larger screens, notifications, Google Now, and the SwiftKey keyboard. Larger screens will likely have to wait until the iPhone 6 next fall (or an Apple phablet). A better notification system will likely have to wait until iOS 8. A Google Now equivalent will also likely have to wait until iOS 8 when Apple can integrate newly-acquired Cue.

In the short term, that leaves SwiftKey as the best opportunity for Apple to nullify one of Android's most important advantages. If SwiftKey would be as straightforward to integrate as Braidwood suggests, then it could be something Apple might integrate into a point release of iOS 7.

Lately, Apple has been more likely to acquire small companies and then integrate their technology into Apple products than it has been to license technology. So, a case could be made that Apple's strongest move could be to acquire SwiftKey, or its closest competitor Swype (which is part of Nuance). Apple also has a ton of its own software engineers and it could simply put them to work on emulating many of the same keyboard features, if it hasn't already.

Whatever direction it chooses, Apple need to act decisively to improve its virtual keyboard. It has fallen behind Android in this area, which is critical for professional users. It's to the point that when BlackBerry holdouts who love their hardware keyboards are now choosing between Android and iPhone, I typically recommend Android to that crowd because the keyboard experience is that much better.

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Topics: Mobility, Apple

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145 comments
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  • This

    I'm sorry but presuming that a predictive keyboard would help Apple face the formidable Android threat is a fairly thin and blunt argumentation.

    Devices variety and price have a far more reaching impact.
    TheCyberKnight
    • Type

      Great. Thanks ZDNET for not allowing us to edit our posts.

      Of course, the title was meant to be "THIN".
      TheCyberKnight
      • Did you type that...

        ... on SwiftKey? :D
        Art_Ilano
        • Doesn't stock Android already do a lot of that?

          Stock Android can write with gesture swipes.

          Stock Android also adds the space when you select words.

          I'm sure Swiftkey adds more word choices, but their website should try harder to explain why it's better than the stock Android keyboard.

          Also, with the NSA now peering into everyone's emails and communication, Swiftkey's cloud-based service worries me. If everything you write gets sent up into the cloud, could the NSA be eavesdropping? Swiftkey should put a notice on its website to say that they have no back door for the NSA.
          Vbitrate
          • swype

            I use swype, and every time I get the stock swipe keyboard on my HTC one xl, I switch back as the experience and interface is so much better(for me). Have used swype for years first in beta and now paid version. For me it was always one of the strongest arguments against Apple, as it makes typing so.much easier and less annoying.
            CP-Sven
          • The NSA

            isn't eaves dropping on everyone's email. They don't have the man power to do that. You are OVERLY paranoid, unless you are a terrorist or someone on their watch list. If you are, then you should be best advised not to get involved with terrorist or illegal activities. Get a clue. It's people like you that mislead other people. The NSA gets information after they get a court order, just like it's always been.
            RichDavis1
      • Yeah

        it's their fault you typed the wrong word - bas#ards
        johnafish
    • Thats Androids entire appeal and sales success....

      Variety.

      Pick one single Android model, the best seller, on its own, does it sell as many copies as iPhone?
      Cayble
      • iPhone what?

        Since iPhone comes in many models now it is not a fair comparison to 'pick one single Android model. So in stating in aggregate iOS vs. Android, then yes Android sell more phones.
        mbcarrig
        • The iPhone

          Comes in 2 models now vs the 1 model previously. Android still has iOS beat in the sheer number of models released so the point Cayble made is still relevant.
          athynz
        • iPhone vs Android

          So, pick one model of any manufacturer of Android phone that has outsold any model of the iPhone for that same sales life.... I'm waiting.
          rphunter1242
          • The Galaxy S4.

            As evidenced by this article, the Galaxy S4 is outselling all current iPhone models worldwide.

            http://news.cnet.com/8301-1035_3-57607739-94/galaxy-s4-slumps-but-still-top-selling-phone-research-firm-says/
            Walkop
          • Correction: This does not include the 5S

            See here: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/oct/21/iphone-5s-apple-top-us-september

            HOWEVER, considering that the release dates for both phones were considerably apart at the release of the 5S, it isn't fair to say the iPhone 5S is outselling the S4 on merit. Market saturation has increased significantly for the S4 since its release.
            Walkop
          • Your subject is iphone vs Android - which is nonsense.

            Do you mean iOS vs Android (OS's) or iphone vs Samsung Galaxy (brands)? ...... What are the numbers? I'm waiting.

            iphone's were terrific in from 2007-2009 (they gave the market the push it needed), it's 2013 now and they fell behind a long time ago. These days Apple just invent new names for existing functionality and then claim it as their own.

            I love apple folk, they're so funny.

            lol
            johnafish
          • iOS vs Android vs...

            Apple does occasionally rebrand features and tech that is similar to other tech. Apple also makes sure the feature is not added for marketing reasons or just because it seems cool at the time.

            Apple delivers useful features. They are the anti "feature" company and that is a very advanced thing. That is not to say other systems dont have any use, yet for many people, they have superior functionality with Apple.

            If you do no believe, the numbers tell the story. If Anriod is really ahead, why are all the usage stats showing Apple's devices are used more often for more things than anything else. Why is Android so insecure? Why is Google closing Android's openness?

            Fan droids make me laugh.
            Bee Ryan
          • Silly Pointless Argument

            I'm pretty sure the Toyota Corolla outsells the Porsche 911 GT3. Given the choice of which car a person could grab for free, which one do you think people would choose most often? Sales doesn't mean much in terms of which platform is better for an individual. I would personally love to have a Porsche 911 GT3, but I can't afford the insurance and upkeep on a car like that. I'm not trying to make a direct comparison between the phones and the cards, I'm simply saying that arguing sales is pointless. It doesn't matter if one is outselling the other, they are both popular and strong. Pizza outsells ice cream, but I still want them both.
            benwetherbee
      • NOPE

        Plus, find an OEM Android phone that actually runs the latest OS and gets updates in a timely manner. Those are two BIG fails for me. I'll just wait for a larger screen iPhone, It might come out sooner than a year from now. I'm fine with what i have.
        RichDavis1
        • Starting with Ice Cream Sandwich...

          ... only real geeks really care about getting the latest updates. You have Ice Cream and beyond you're good to go and happy.
          Art_Ilano
          • Who cares what version I'm running?

            If it works and "ain't broke", don't fix it! I bet there are many Apple iPhone owners who wish their phones didn't automatically update to the latest iOS offering, judging by the comments I've heard/read about iOS 7. My Galaxy S3 came with Ice Cream Sandwich and, with a small amount of help from me, upgraded to Jelly Bean within 6 weeks of my buying the phone. It did a minor upgrade automatically which (I think) cured a bug which occasionally caused a repetitive reboot. So it seems that Android does update automatically if there's a bug, but not if there's nothing wrong with the currently installed version.
            On the keyboard front, one feature which I was astonished that the iPhone doesn't (didn't) do (it may do in the latest version of iOS) is to change the keyboard display between upper and lower case letters on the virtual keys depending on whether Shift or Shift Lock is active. This makes it so obvious whether your typing is going to come out in upper or lower case rather than having to look at the Shift key to see what its status is.
            I recently bought a bluetooth keyboard for my phone but it has one problem - how do I hold the phone and type with both hands at the same time? Typing one handed almost negates the advantage of a physical keyboard. Does anyone make a phone holder similar to a harmonica holder as used by musicians who play more than one instrument at the same time? If not, I reckon there's a market for one!
            JohnOfStony
          • After the first two lines of your post figured the rest was a waste to read

            Next time please try to have at least a minor understanding of the topic before posting. iOS devices do not automatically update without user input telling it to update. Of course I guess when you use a device that doesn't even get offered updates you don't understand this.
            non-biased