You just aren't my type: Improving the iOS keyboard

By Nathaniel Mott , written on December 11, 2012

From The News Desk

Calling a keyboard “good” used to mean that it didn’t make too much of a racket while typing and that its keys almost never popped off and disappeared. There are some keyboard snobs who have a preference for one type or style of keyboard or another – chiclet-style keys with a little bit of give are the best, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise! – but for the most part, people just want to know that the damn thing won’t fall apart.

That isn’t an issue with the software-based keyboards that became popular once touch-screens started dominating our lives. A software keyboard won’t make a lot of noise, its keys never pop off, and unless your screen gets broken, the keyboard should be fine. Instead, users are left to wonder about the accuracy of their keyboard's autocorrect function, the ability to use the keyboard in more than one way, and being able to put thought to touch-screen as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the default iOS keyboard, which has been relatively unchanged since its introduction, is lagging behind both Android and Windows Phone in each regard.

Sites like the ever-enjoyable Damn You Auto Correct! have collected some of the more humorous examples of touch-screen mishaps. Whether it's "a button nose" being transformed into "biotechnology-derived eyes," a not-safe-for-work interpretation of "cat," or turning "Machu Picchu" into "Macho Pikachu," these little errors are vexingly frequent.  Other, less funny issues have been bouncing around the blogosphere for the last week. Writer and Campaign Monitor employee Chris Bowler complained about Apple’s keyboard on December 4, and others, like MacStories’ Federico Viticci, have thrown their hat into the ring as well.

Though Bowler and Viticci focused on the text-selection aspect of writing on the iPad (and, by extension, the iPhone), the back-and-forth reminded me of just how far Apple lags behind its competition in the keyboard department. One would think that the company responsible for popularizing the touch-screen keyboard would have the best implementation – and I’m sure someone will argue this in the comments – but both Android and Windows Phone provide compelling alternatives more capable than Apple’s offering.

Consider the autocorrect process on iOS. You type a word – let’s say you’re going for “martyr” – and accidentally mistype a letter. IOS displays a little pop-over next to the word letting you know what it thinks you meant, and you can either tap the pop-over to dismiss it or keep typing to let it do its thing. Though this is great for little mistakes, it’s frustrating while typing proper nouns or uncommon words (and let’s not even start in on curses). Even if you catch the mistake in time – which is rare, if you’re a fast typist – tapping the pop-over, which has a little “X” next to it, does the opposite of what a user would expect. Frustrating.

Neither Android nor Windows Phone do this. Both platforms have an extra bar – which may have been built into iOS at one point, as it turns out – that displays what the keyboard thinks you’re typing and what you may want to change it to. These suggestions are often better than iOS’, and, wonder of all wonders, tapping on one inserts it into the text field, just as the user should expect.

Android takes this a step further, using the bar to guess what you might be typing based on your past messages. I’ve tapped out entire sentences with Android’s keyboard after typing just one word – though that doesn’t happen every time, the number of taps (and, therefore, the margin for error) to type something like “I’ll see you later” is drastically smaller than it would be on iOS. This is something that all platforms should build into their solutions, fast.

Android’s keyboards are actually an embarrassment of riches compared to Apple’s. Though both feature dictation, converting users’ speech to text, Google’s is often more accurate and is available offline. Google actually made a big deal of this at its I/O conference last year, as well it should – Apple’s solution has the full backing of the company’s servers and still doesn’t touch Google’s offering.

And then there are aspects which haven’t quite proven themselves yet, like the Lumia 920’s ability to detect touch even when a user is wearing gloves (as they’re about to, since winter is coming to the US) or Android’s recently-introduced “drag your finger to select keys” functionality. Though that last bit was pioneered by Swype, which was acquired by Nuance, Android is the first platform to offer the feature out of the box.

Despite being the driving force behind the shift to software-based solutions, Apple’s keyboards have fallen behind Android and Windows Phone. Worse, one can’t simply replace the iOS keyboard – if something doesn’t work, and there are a lot of things that don’t, you’re stuck with what you’ve got.

[Image courtesy suzi54241]