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

Android has leapfrogged iPhone in the quality of its virtual keyboard experience, thanks to SwiftKey. But, Apple has a move it could make.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief
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.

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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