Rant: iOS and and Third Party Keyboards

 

iOS 10 third party keyboardsThird party keyboards were introduced as app extensions two years ago in iOS 8, and I was really excited by the prospect of getting to use long-standing Android keyboards like SwiftKey and Swype on iOS. Unfortunately, these other keyboards were nearly unusable when they launched. I think part of it was that developers were still getting used to how to develop input software for iOS, but the lion’s share of the blame seemed to lie with iOS just handling this new kind of extension very badly.

Keyboards could very slow to load in different apps, and they would reliably crash as you switched between chats in iMessage — which just landed you back in the default iOS QuickType keyboard.

Things got a little bit better when iOS 9 rolled out, but it was really only a marginal improvement. There were fewer crashes, but there were still specific areas, like Spotlight search, where third-party keyboards would require several seconds just to load up.

iOS 10 is a similar story of marginal improvement. We’re only on beta 1 so things should only get better from here on out, but I am noticing an increase in keyboard stability during this past week of use.

Gboard and SwiftKey have been working well and they have about a 95% uptime for me. This is really where the biggest difference lies: stability. There are occasional keyboard crashes, but they aren’t nearly as spectacular as before. I’ll just get a quick glimpse of the QuickType keyboard, but the active third-party keyboard will reload itself in a second or two. I have high hopes for actually being able to use Gboard or SwiftKey as my full-time keyboards in late 2016.

You’re also still out of luck if you like using dictation and a third-party keyboard. Only the default QuickType keyboard has the honour and the privilege of accessing Siri in iOS 10, and there aren’t any other gestures or Siri commands to activate dictation. I think this is still an oversight on Apple’s part, and shows that they don’t really ever seem to test what third-party keyboards are like on their OS.

The bigger oversight in iOS 10 is that keyboards still aren’t welcome on the lock screen, which makes for a very inconsistent experience if you want to stick to one keyboard across your entire iOS experience. Any text messages that you reply to on the lock screen will use the default QuickType keyboard, and every message you reply to after you unlock your phone will use the keyboard you actually chose to use. I think Apple’s original stance on this was for privacy or security, but now that the QuickType keyboard will auto-suggest addresses and phone numbers when prompted, I find this safeguard irrelevant. It’s strange that Apple is so willing to expand on the lock screen with widgets and expanded notifications in iOS 10, but they still insist that you use their keyboard to do things there.

The two noted changes for keyboard extensions in Apple’s own developer notes talk about detecting multiple languages, and adding an option to use the system keyboard picker in a third-party keyboard. These are quality-of-life changes that are nice to have, but only once the base experience has been totally fixed.

Of all of the features that iOS has ever added, I think keyboard extensions are the one that has taken the longest to mature. It’s been two years and we’re just getting to the stage where they’re becoming viable for day-to-day use.

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