Apple just announced the launch of their new 4 inch iPhone and one of the hottest areas for iPhone apps is keyboards. This actually came as news to me when I first heard about Swiftkey and Swype about a year ago, but apparently there is a lot of room for improvement on the native iOs keyboard. In February Microsoft acquired Swiftkey for a reported $250 million, giving real validation to what's happening in the space.
So I've been playing around with a few of these products now and wanted to share some thoughts. I had originally thought "a keyboard is a keyboard" -- a functional composition tool (except of course for the emoji keyboard, which is a lot of fun). But these third party keyboards provide a lot more utility than they do just fun. And they have the potential to improve the way we connect and communicate on our mobile devices.
Swiftkey's claim to fame and a justification for the hefty price paid by Microsoft is it's "artificial intelligence" (AI) or ability to learn from the user in order to provide much better predictive text capabilities. They also offer multi-language support and a cool ability to type by simply swiping across the keyboard without lifting a finger.
Other keyboards such as Swype and Fleksy are very much about speed. A new entrant to the market is called AIR, dubbing itself as "the first and only social media keyboard in the market" Their focus is on making creating, editing and sharing content to social media easier and faster. AIR connects to your social networks. They provide quick access to stored hashtags and groups, and offer a cool image editor that makes it easy to convert messages to images to "beat Twitter's 140 character limit."
Is a third party keyboard right for you and if so which one? Well some of these are free apps - Swiftkey and Fleksy are free to install and offer in-app purchases to upgrade features. Most of these apps require you to enable full access for the app within your settings, which people with a high degree of privacy sensitivity may not be comfortable doing. Swype is the exception here, as they simply store what you type locally and can be easily deleted any time. Providing full access may sound scary but I personally find the gain in utility / productivity to be well worth it. Plus, keyboards like Swype and AIR Social Keyboard appear to have solid privacy policies.
The one thing I wish is that Apple would make it a bit easier to enable these apps, but of course I understand they probably prefer people just use their standard keyboard. But once you have made it through the install process, enabled your third party keyboard, and figured out a few of its features, I think you will quickly find yourself utilizing it more than the standard keyboard. There are many cool things that can be enabled via the keyboard and given the amount of composition (emails, text, social media posts) that now is done on mobile devices there is a lot of opportunity to create unique value for users. I am excited to see where these keyboard apps go next.