Third-party keyboards find their audience in spite of Apple's neglect

There are a lot of very smart people working on something very boring: improving the virtual keyboard.

In the past month alone, we've seen two of Apple's biggest rivals, Microsoft and, most recently Google, release keyboards for the iPhone, a declaration of intent for where eyeballs — and fingers — are shifting.

The beginnings of a keyboard platform

When the iPhone was released in 2007, its virtual keyboard was heralded as revelatory for an industry unaccustomed to multi-touch on capacitive screens. What would happen when you could tap on multiple places at once and receive immediate feedback? As the company proved, it was this input mechanism, along with annual improvements to autocorrect and, later, predictive typing, that shifted the conversation from whether people could produce content on a smartphone to how much content they could produce on it. That story came to a head in 2014, when Apple near-undermined its own iPad mini with the iPhone 6 Plus, a smartphone with a screen larger enough, and a keyboard wide enough, to all but alleviate the pain of long-form typing.

But alongside the iPhone 6 Plus, Apple released iOS 8, a particularly developer-friendly iteration of the company's annual software update. One feature in particular, third-party keyboards, was at once lauded and subsequently overlooked, as it became immediately apparent its implementation was fraught with bugs. While Android mainstays like SwiftKey, Fleksy and Swype were quick to launch iOS versions of their popular keyboards, users balked at the frequency of bugs and the clumsiness of setup.

Nearly two years later, time and subsequent updates have softened those issues, but more than ever we're seeing companies investing in their potential. With today's release of the long-rumored GBoard, Google too has moved to where the puck is going — increasingly on top of existing apps, rather than the standalone variety.

"I see this is Google fighting back against Apple's Siri and Spotlight efforts to pre-empt Google searches in iOS (and to a lesser extent OS X)," says Jan Dawson, chief analyst at JackDaw Research. "This is a way to get Google search in a place where iOS users will see it regularly, before they even get to Spotlight." Despite Google's ever-present dominance in search, Apple has made a concerted effort to obviate the need for the traditional Google input box, both through improvements to Siri, and natural language search in Spotlight. iOS 9 even redirected users to a dedicated card on the far left of the home screen, and its successor, being unveiled in under a month, is likely to reinforce search's importance.

Deceptively simple

GBoard is deceptively simple: It looks nearly identical to Apple's default keyboard, inserting but a small Google search box above the QWERTY keys. But it is through that box Google's particular brand of disruption shows itself: a portable Google Now kiosk by which to find sports scores, music lyrics and news articles, all filtered through the company's tight algorithms.

But as Dawson notes, third-party keyboards are still relatively niche on iOS, largely due to onerous setup requirements. "The big challenge," he says, "is that third party keyboards on iOS are not widely used, and people may well have privacy concerns about a Google keyboard in particular," noting that Apple's security-first sandboxing requirements force users into a difficult situation of acknowledging third-party data collection. "Getting many people to not just try it but make it their default keyboard will be tough."

Google does have advantages over its rivals in this particular case. Millions of people have been willingly giving it their personal information for years, in exchange for the free services, like Gmail and Maps, many take for granted. And because GBoards plugs into one's existing Google account, search history and personalized suggestions are de facto facets of GBoard's utility.

Of course, Google is, as all third-party keyboard makers are, limited by Apple's rules around what a third-party keyboard can and cannot be. While GBoard can provide search results in the form of cards, links, GIFs, and images, it can only copy those results to paste into the foreground app; it cannot, as I'm sure Google would prefer, open its own web browser. For that there is the dedicated Google app (opens in new tab), and the revelation the company paid Apple a billion dollars to continue as the default search engine in iOS.

Wider acceptance

GBoard is not alone in its quest to interface directly with users. The keyboard is increasingly a platform unto itself, with services and plug-ins obviating the need to open a separate app. Slash Keyboard (opens in new tab) plugs into some 20 external products, from Foursquare to the New York Times to, yes, Google. Microsoft's Hub Keyboard takes a different approach, ostensibly making it easier to interface with its increasingly ubiquitous cloud services, OneDrive and Office 365.

We wish that Apple treated third-party keyboards better than it does, but in the meantime users are being offered compelling reasons to explore what they can do today. More importantly, it gives companies like Google and Microsoft a semblance of control, and an opportunity for disruption, on a platform that has until recently resisted such incursions.

Daniel Bader is a Senior Editor at iMore, offering his Canadian analysis on Apple and its awesome products. In addition to writing and producing, Daniel regularly appears on Canadian networks CBC and CTV as a technology analyst.

  • All I want is swype in the stock keyboard.. Apple are really lazy lately... Not liking it at all. They release something, then stop improving it.. Keyboard, Siri, the whole iOS... It's getting too much... Maybe Note 6 will make me switch. They even did not add the promised Swype on space bar to move the cursor in older devices (older I mean iPhone 6)... Will wait to see iOS 10, if it's the same s***, not going to pay a bag of money for something my phone already can do..
  • After using everything, literally everything, I had to admit, Windows Phone word flow keyboard is the best. Sadly.
  • Lol the wordflow on iOS is crap compared to what Google released today.
  • The fact that I cannot use Siri, as a button, on add-on keyboards kills it for me.
  • If you come from outside the Apple ecosystem, there is a perception that everything "just works" on iPhone. I switched about a year and a half ago and the reality is that Apple has many, if not more, issues than the competition does.
    The keyboard situation is just one example. It's puzzling to me that they get this so wrong when it is such an essential part of the OS interface and that the competition (Windows Mobile/Android) are far superior in their offerings. I don't know if it's laziness or just plain contempt, but I find it a bit embarrassing that it is so bad. If you have only ever used iPhone, you are blissfully unaware of how far behind Apple is in this regard.
  • I just switched from Android. I marked couple of bugs and annoying things. Totally agree with you Sent from the iMore App
  • I just wish both the Google and Microsoft keyboards were available in Canada so I can try them.
  • I love trying out all of these and but sadly the lack of voice to text option keeps me going back to Apples. I really could see using word flow though on my future larger 7Plus.......
  • The Gboard is EASILY the best third party keyboard I've ever used. Honestly I like it better than the stock keyboard so far. The text prediction and correction is extremely good. And the ability to perform google searches from within the keyboard is awesome. This is a must try in my opinion.
  • ok again can not get on the canadian app store! this happened as well with the new microsoft keyboard, which has been out for awhile now! WHY APPLE......JUST WHY?
  • Apple stinks today. They were great only when nothing else had a chance yet.
  • What google have done with Gboard , Apple should do with its native keyboard , but add the ability of the use accessing all the apps on the phone as well as search. So when I'm texting someone about a show on Netflix,I can just tap the app button,choose Netflix & share info on that show. I think that would be great! Sent from the iMore App
  • For me stock keyboard is perfect Sent from the iMore App
  • For me stock keyboard is perfect Sent from the iMore App
  • Yeah i remember when apple users said 4" screens were perfect too.
  • Ouch
  • I have to agree. I've tried several third party keyboards and maybe I just don't get it because I type just fine with the stock keyboard. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel typing a **** text or email. The only one I even halfway use is Popkey just for fun. If I need to hammer out some text that's what my Mac and Smart Keyboard/iPad are for.
  • Can I change the GBoard default search to duckduckgo? :-P
  • Unlikely since it is google's keyboard
  • I'd just like dictation (mic) access for 3rd party keyboards.
  • For awhile switching between alternate keyboards was a pain. It has gotten better. It needs to get better though. A better way to switch needs to be created. There has to be a better way of switching then cycling through the current keyboards a person has on their phone.
  • Long press the keyboard switch icon and you can just swipe to the keyboard you want.
  • You have to cycle threw them. It would be nice if you could go directly to the one you want. Sent from the iMore App
  • Long pressing on the globe icon and getting a list of keyboards only works on the stock iOS keyboard. 3rd party keyboards have their own menu and none of them list available keyboards.
  • Nice job Google... Despite Apple's attempts they still can't keep out Google.
  • No 3D Touch trackpad or Siri dictation is a killer for me but this is an awesome keyboard otherwise.
  • No 3D touch trackpad needed, but you can slide left and right on the keyboard to move the cursor. Not 3D touch, just regular.
  • Oh cool, thanks! It's sliding on the spacebar. If you slide elsewhere it is text entry. Nice implementation on Google's part. Still need a dictation button tho :-(
  • Downloaded it. It is nice but I just don't like full access giving to google
  • Google is a very trustworthy company, maybe they'll collect data of what you're typing but that's just for research and product development. You should worry more about getting full access to custom keyboard where you haven't really heard of the company before
  • I love the Fleksy keyboard. I really want to use it. I just wish Apple would allow me to choose a keyboard, and that keyboard appear every time, I have a need to input text. Until then, I will use the stock keyboard.
  • Just remove the rest of the keyboards from the list and only have the Fleksy keyboard, that'll force it to use that one, excluding password fields obviously
  • You can't log into a Google account with Gboard yet.
  • As many jab said... Lack of Dictation Button on 3rd party keyboards are a show stopper for me. Sent from the iMore App
  • I am looking forward to (hopefully) using the gboard keyboard on my ipad. I don't understand why apple refuses to include swipe in their standard keyboard.
  • "And because GBoards plugs into one's existing Google account, search history and personalized suggestions are de facto facets of GBoard's utility." Completely untrue. There's no way to tell Gboard what your Google account is.
  • Love Gboard! Near perfect. Add talk to text and it will be perfect. Thank you Google. Sent from the iMore App
  • Love Gboard! Near perfect. Add voice to text and it will be perfect. Thank you Google. Sent from the iMore App