Recent releases of software and hardware keyboards for iOS have proven to be welcome new changes. The typing interface is powerful but still has more to go before it matches that which we expect in other keyboards. Just as alternate physical keyboards are needed for localization on desktops and laptops, there should be customized keyboards for iPad that allow pro functionality such as trackpad and Esc key for a premium. I would say $269 for such a premium Smart Keyboard is a fair price vs $169 for the current Smart Keyboard cover. This would make iPad more like a Mac for those of us ready to make the switch to a true PC replacement. Citrix has even come out with the X1 its own mouse for working with remote desktops. Migrating from Windows can be less jarring if all the trappings are there for users to switch to more seamlessly. While the idea of working on Windows is scary for some, it’s a fact of life for many. The move to Apple was easy for me back in 2008 with the Mac Mini and then the MacBook – the move to iPad Pro should be easier.
For third party software keyboards, access to transcription, the system dictionary, improved stability, and improved startup speed are sorely needed. Third party keyboards are so slow to start up, can crash more often, and do not allow you to immediately switch back to a specific keyboard unless it is the only third party keyboard installed. They also do not allow access to the system spellcheck, meaning every keyboard you use has its own dictionary to build for predictive typing. They are effectively (seems purposely) painful to use despite the noise Apple made about this welcome feature back in iOS 8. Apple either either ignored further development of third party software keyboards in iOS 9 or they originally intended to only provide enough functionality to shut up critics who claimed the feature was missing.
Keyboards like Slash, Reboard and Touchpal offer great features but each seem to have one unique feature that the others do not and which cannot be combined in any way with the others. For instance, ReBoard can let you set the globe icon to require a doubletap to switch keyboards so that you don’t mistakenly get some other keyboard popping on your screen in the middle one typing frenzy, while Slash pops up a menu that let’s you access settings and switching. ReBoard has an emoji key and a function key in the top row, where Slash has only a function key that requires more typing to get to emoji (the next most common mobile use after the actual alphanumerics). ReBoard has access to network services like Dropbox and Google Drive. ReBoard also has a really cool swipe up feature on keys for alternate characters that keeps you from having to look for the most commonly used punctuation and alternate characters. Slash has themes and a dark mode while Reboard has themes and no dark mode. Note that the stock Apple keyboards already have some great features, but wouldn’t they be better with more?
If there was some way to combine features of these and still keep it stable, I would use nothing else but the third party keyboard. At the moment I find myself switching right back to the stock system keyboard the moment I try going back to using one of those special features, reminded of how badly crippled that software is. Although it would increase the complexity, iOS keyboards are begging to be much more modular. The idea behind these is revolutionary and should be expanded. If I could have a row of small modular keys like Drafts 4 does to give me text manipulation and media management, I can build a system keyboard for use everywhere in all apps. I can imagine a keyboard using ReBoard’s swipe up idea that allows me to set the alternate characters you want, since everyone’s alternatives are going to be different. A gif search from Slash. Arrow keys from Drafts and Prompt. Etc.
Requiring each and every developer to reinvent things like spell check is extremely redundant and wasteful. Denying access to important functions like transcription can be a real deterrent to using third party keyboards. Make this a revolutionary change that we can all use of to improve quick interaction with our device when we aren’t using Siri. Allowing physical keyboards some way to interact with these virtual keyboards would go even further.
UPDATE 05-13-2016: Google has release GBoard which has some of the great features of the other third party keyboards listed. The argument then becomes, why does’t Apple now evolve the keyboard to allow these features that everyone is trying to put forth. Google’s opportunistic play at grabbing searches is obvious now that iPhone no longer comes with Google Search by default, but the idea of search from the keyboard as a point.
UPDATE 05-14-2016: The always-brilliant Federico Viticci has posted a fantastic summary on third party keyboards, the problems they still face, the reasons for Apple’s restrictions, and some great ways that Apple can let developers work around the limitations to improve them all.
For iMessage, bringing Apple Watch style Digital Touch drawing would be a cute addition. These are touch devices at heart and drawing is one of the best ways we communicate via touch. Stickers are a big deal in all the messaging apps, cute or not. A modular stickers capability could give designers more opportunity in the app market. “Anyone can make stickers” is as valid as saying anybody can paint a painting. Just like with the App Store, you are guaranteed to get some poor quality content. The better quality items will always come shining through, however. A picture could really be worth a few thousand words here.
iMessage has some real issues cross platform especially when it comes to SMS support. There are times where I have deleted a conversation on my phone, yet it still appears on my iPad, and as unread to boot. Even rarer but still annoying is when it happens on the Apple Watch. We know that those green bubble texts are not actually a part of iMessage, but in displaying them Apple now owns the handling and it looks sloppier than what we expect.
(Continued in Part 4)