The iOS keyboard is overdue for an upgrade

The iOS keyboard is overdue for an upgrade

Summary: Apple broke ground with the iPhone's virtual keyboard in 2007, but it appears to be stuck in time. It turns out iOS has lots of keyboard options but Apple and third-party developers have been slow to implement them.

TOPICS: Apple, iOS, iPhone, iPad
iOS keyboard long overdue for an upgrade - Jason O'Grady

When the iPhone was announced in 2007, people loathed the on-screen keyboard. Blackberry users panned it and even I hated it at first. Then a week went by and I loved it. Many people can type faster on a virtual keyboard then they can on a tiny chiclet keyboard, and most would agree that more screen real estate is better value proposition that a physical keyboard that takes up half the surface of a device. 

The problem is that the iOS keyboard hasn't changed much since the original iPhone debuted in 2007 -- and it drives me nuts. One of the advantages of virtual keyboards is that you can change them on-the-fly in software. Or so the theory goes.

As of iOS 6.1.2 Apple only slightly modifies the keyboard in its first-party apps:

  • In Mail, it replaces the spacebar with a smaller space bar and dedicated "@" and period keys when typing an email address. 
  • In Safari, it replaces the spacebar with period, slash and ".com" keys when you're typing into the address bar field. But at the expense of the microphone/Siri button (I guess that Apple doesn't want us dictating URLs).

Here are a couple of things that Apple needs to change in the iOS keyboard, stat:

Showcase app for Cydia displays a dedicated number row - Jason O'Grady

iOS provides zero feedback over which case I'm typing in. The iOS keys display upper-case characters whether I'm typing in upper-case or lower-case letters. It would be trivial for iOS to display lower-case characters when typing them, yet the iOS keyboard always shows upper-case characters. The Android keyboard has displayed the proper case for as long as I can remember. (Pictured above is a lower-case iOS keyboard -- only available on jailbroken devices running the Showcase app from Cydia.)

5 row iOS keyboard - Jason O'Grady

Dedicated Number Row
Apple should add a dedicated number row across the top of the iOS keyboard. The lack of a dedicated numbers row makes it difficult to enter strong passwords in iOS because you have to switch back and forth between the text and number keyboards. This could easily be a preference in the iOS keyboard settings. (Pictured above is 5-Row Keyboard, a jailbreak tweak only available in Cydia.)

But it's not just Apple that's been lazy in implementing extra iOS keyboards, developers have been slow to offer additional keyboard choices too. Luckily, some iOS developers use the UITextField, UITextView, and UIView objects in the iOS SDK to customize their keyboards. Good examples of apps that have purpose-built keyboards include:

Chrome for iOS keyboard - Jason O'Grady

Google Chrome adds four dedicated punctuation keys and a ".com" button.

Byword iOS keyboard - Jason O'Grady

Byword is a writing app that includes a keyboard accessory which shows word and character counts. You can even swipe it to show quick cursor arrows and common syntax used when writing in Markdown.

iA Writer for iOS keyboard - Jason O'Grady

IAWriter is another writing app that includes a customizable fifth keyboard row.

Wolfram Alpha for iOS keyboard - Jason O'Grady

Wolfram Alpha for iOS turns keyboards into an art form. The $2.99 app includes a default keyboard, a math keyboard, a Greek keyboard, and a symbol keyboard, to name a few. 

It's time for Apple to show its plain-jane iOS keyboard some love.  

How would you change the iOS keyboard?

Topics: Apple, iOS, iPhone, iPad

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • You Mean Each App Must Implement Its Own Custom Keyboard?

    Can't you have third-party custom keyboards that hook into standard system text-entry APIs and automatically work with existing apps, like Android does?
    • Nope!

      The phone will select from available keyboard layouts based on the input field type.

      The input field type is specified by the app developer in the graphical layout part of xCode, or proceduraly in the code.

      It takes one parameter to set the input, be it keyboard or other input control.

      If the developer wants to create a custom keyboard they can. If the developer wants to add to a keyboard they can.

      Wolfram Alpha adds considerably to the standard keyboard, as do other apps. I havent seen an app that creates a whole keyboard as that would rarely be necessary.

      As for custom keyboards system wide - no the basic security approach makes that a bad idea. If Android does this by allowing code execution then good luck!
      • Re: the basic security approach makes that a bad idea.

        Interesting, because Android has been designed with more thought to security than IOS. Once an IOS app gets past Apple's vetting process, it's open slather, whereas on Android each app is constrained by the permissions sandbox.
  • Except...

    "iOS provides zero feedback over which case I'm typing in."

    Except of course for the shift keys, which are highlighted to provide feedback over which case you're typing in.
    • Exactly!

      Just like on a physical keyboard. I'm left wondering what Jason would have made of the Creed teleprinter I used to operate. You had to switch between text and figures for that. And, of course, hyphens, full stops, commas, etc., were all on the figures layout. Also, when I wasn't using the Creed (I couldn't if the operator at the other end was sending messages) I was expected to adapt to a manual typewriter. (Piece of cake!)
      Laraine Anne Barker
  • Windows keyboard

    I was very surprised at how good the Windows keyboard is. I live in Germany, so I spend a great deal of time writing in German, as well as English.

    On iOS, the characters that you need all the time (ä, ö, ü, ß etc.) aren't even displayed. You have to hold the a, e, u or s key down for a second, then a list appears with the accents. This is fine if you are typing in English and only need the characters rarely, but in a foreign language, where those accents are used a lot, that is a pain. Okay, Android isn't any better at this.

    But under Windows 8 and RT, those extra characters are there all the time. I can also switch layouts mid sentence and apps, like Internet Explorer, automatically change the spelling checker to match the keyboard language!

    That is a huge benefit.
    • International Keyboards

      You can easily add any number of keyboards to your iOS device.
      On my iPhone, it's simply a matter of Settings -> General -> Keyboard -> Keyboards -> Add New Keyboard -> select which ever language(s) you need.
      Then when you're using a keyboard, simply tapping the International icon (looks like a globe) beside the "123" key toggles you through your choices.
      Tony in TLoTRS
      • I have a German iPhone

        with German keyboard layout (QWERTZ instead of QWERTY), but that doesn't change the fact that none of the commonly used characters from the German alphabet don't have their own keys.

        On Windows, the onscreen keyboards have those extra keys, making the experience a lot better.
  • The keyboard isn't the only part of iOS that's not changed in the past 5


    It's due an overhaul.
  • Apple worship

    "Apple broke ground with the iPhone's virtual keyboard in 2007"

    This gives Apple too much credit. There is a sort of mass-hysteria among certain commentators who seem obsessed with ignoring true history and replacing it with a fictional one in order to credit Apple with more than they deserve.

    "When the iPhone was announced in 2007, people loathed the on-screen keyboard. Blackberry users panned it and even I hated it at first. Then a week went by and I loved it."

    The headline says it all, however.
    Tim Acheson
    • How does this Apple "too much credit"?

      The smartphone market was stagnant, real developments by RIM or Microsoft were rare - WM was the same tired old OS from 4x to 6x - the only real advancements came from the ROM baking community and most of those were tweaks to allow WM to be a workable OS. RIM's BB OS was not much better as far as real developments but they at least had a largely bug-free OS.

      Then came Apple and rearranged the smartphone market paradigm and made it a viable and exciting market as evidenced by the success of iOS and Android, the complete revamp of Microsoft's mobile OS, and now even Blackerry's BB OS 10.

      Sorry you are too blinded by your love of Microsoft to see what really happened and are attempting to rewrite history yourself.
  • Correction

    iOS is overdue for an upgrade. After using my Surface & WP was helping a friend with his iPad...awful experience.
  • "yet the iOS keyboard always shows upper-case characters."

    Maybe,because there are many middle age people, whose vision isn't as good as yours?
    Maria Davidenko
    • Re: Maybe,because there are many middle age people, whose vision isn't as g

      But lower case is easier to read than upper case.
      • Are you sure?

        Really? Ask million of people, half of that million will tell you, you're mistaken.
        Maria Davidenko
        • Re: you're mistaken.

          No I'm not, and you can prove it yourself.

          Try reading a line of text with only the top halves of the letters visible (e.g. cover the bottom half of the line with a sheet of paper). Now try reading a line with only the bottom halves of the letters visible.

          You'll find you can read the text almost perfectly looking at only the top halves of the letters, not so easily from just the bottom halves. What this means is that alphabets have evolved to convey more information in the upper parts of letter shapes than their lower parts.

          Now compare uppercase and lowercase letters, and you'll see that lowercase letters have more variation in their upper parts than uppercase letters do.

          In other words, lowercase letters are more distinctive in the parts that are more important for distinguishing them.

          In other words, lowercase letters are easier to read.

          • Just because YOU

            Can read capital letters better does not mean that the majority of people can do the same. And depending on the font a lower case "I" looks like an upper case "L" with your "cover the upper half of the letters" idea. Just thought I'd point that out.
          • Unfortunately, not QED

            First off, a lot of times readibility depends quite heavily upon the font you picked. For example, whether using upper- or lower-case, it's very easy to distinguish between "L" and "1" in Calibri...but in Times New Roman (a default font used worldwide), "l" and "1" are nearly indistinguishable, especially using your test method.

            Secondly, "b" and "d" under your test method are indistinguishable with your test method, since the only distinguishing characteristic (which side the vertical line belongs to) is *not* distinguishable when only looking at the lower half of the letters. In contrast, the shape of the curves on the upper-case versions makes it extremely easy to distinguish between them.

            As for variations between upper & lower parts of letters, the majority of lower-case letters don't *have* an upper portion. In fact, only 7 letters (b, d, f, h, k, l & t) have an upper portion -- 9 if you count the dot for 'i' and 'j', except that dot doesn't allow you to distinguish between either letter.

            Not to mention, of course, that a) people don't use electronic devices with half of each letter obscured (so the test becomes rather pointless) and b) since capital letters are (by their nature) larger than lower-case letters, they are automatically easier to read (just as large-print books are easier to read than standard-print books).
          • Nothing to add

            You said everything I wanted to say few hours ago
            Maria Davidenko
          • What does the upper/lower half of letters have to do with it?

            When you're talking about the readability of letters, much of it is subjective. And the issue isn't that people with elderly eyes only see part of the letters, it's that they see the letters less distinctly. Capitals tend to be bolder than lowercase letters, so many people with poor eyesight prefer them.