Thoughts on iOS Third-Party Keyboards

Update: Added a restriction that I was aware of but had forgotten about.

Since Gboard was released last week, iOS third-party keyboards, and the restrictions Apple places on them, have been getting more attention than I’ve probably seen since iOS 8 was released. The comment I have seen most often about Gboard is that it is a nothing but a “keylogger” for Google, even though it plainly states “Other than your searches, Gboard doesn’t send anything you type to Google.”1 In his recent article on the subject, Federico Viticci had this to say:

I struggle to understand the position of those who call custom keyboards “keyloggers” because, frankly, that’s a discussion we should have had two years ago, not as soon as Google launches a custom keyboard. Since 2014, hundreds of companies (including Microsoft and Giphy) have released custom keyboards, each theoretically capable of “logging” what you type. That ship has sailed.

I am more concerned with one of those celebrity emoji keyboards or one of the countless “create your own theme” type keyboards being a keylogger much more than I am about Gboard being one.

I also have to wonder if, two years into custom keyboards, it would be time for Apple to lift some of their other keyboard restrictions. To recap, this is what custom keyboards on iOS can’t do:

  • Access the system settings of Auto-Capitalization, Enable Caps Lock, and dictionary reset feature
  • Type into secure text input objects (password fields)
  • Type into phone pad objects (phone dialer UIs)
  • Access selected text
  • Access the device microphone
  • Use the system keyboard switching popup

Aside from microphone access, secure input fields, and phone pad objects, I’d like to see Apple add support for everything else in iOS 10. More importantly, I’d like to see their performance improve. Here’s an example: when you swipe down from the Home screen to open Spotlight, Apple’s keyboard comes up with a soft transition that’s pleasing on the eye; if you do the same with a custom keyboard, the transition is always jarring, and it often doesn’t work at all.

That last restriction is one I have never understood. Not having access to the popup keyboard picker in third-party keyboards makes it a huge pain to switch between them and I have never understood what harm could come from allowing third-party keyboards to access it. I don’t know if this is another Apple restriction on third-party keyboards or developers simply not implementing it, but I have yet to see a third-party keyboard with 3D Touch trackpad functionality.2 The 3D Touch trackpad is the biggest thing I miss about the stock keyboard when I use a third-party keyboard. If it is a restriction, which it probably is, it is another one that I don’t understand. Like with the popup keyboard picker, I don’t see the harm in letting third-party keyboards use the functionality. The performance issues Federico mentions are the most common complaint I have seen with third-party keyboards in general and I hope to see it improve with iOS 10. One other restriction on third-party keyboards that I was aware of but had forgotten about, is that third-party keyboards can’t be used with QuickReply from the lockscreen. If you add a third-party keyboard and delete the stock keyboard and try to use QuickReply from the lockscreen, you get a generic iOS keyboard with no autocorrect.3

With all that said, Gboard is one of the best third-party keyboards I’ve used and has become my favorite third-party keyboard. I love being able to search Google, GIFs and emoji right from the keyboard. I also like the layout of the keyboard and Glide Typing is one of the best swipe-to-type implementations I’ve seen. I think that with a few changes, Gboard is what the stock iOS keyboard4 should be. These are changes that I (and others) think would need to be made to Gboard in order for it to become the stock keyboard, though a few of these would be nice to see made to Gboard itself. Some of these won’t be possible unless Apple lifts some restrictions, so I guess you could also call this a wish list.

  • Multi-language support and availability outside the US are at the top of the list of changes, both as changes to Gboard and for it to become the stock keyboard.
  • Adding dictation along with the option to use Google instead of Siri, and the ability to switch search engines are high on the list. The first two would require some changes to iOS and it’s restrictions in order for them to ever be added to Gboard. If a Gboard-like keyboard were to become the stock iOS keyboard I would hope that Apple would let users change the search engine the keyboard uses, and using Google for dictation instead of Siri would require Apple to let users to set a default option for apps and services.
  • 3D Touch trackpad functionality is something I would like to see added to Gboard in the future, though it may require a restriction removal. If a Gboard-like keyboard became the stock keyboard, I hope it would still have the 3D Touch trackpad functionality.

Apple loosened a lot of iOS restrictions in iOS 8 and 9. Hopefully they continue that trend at WWDC next month when they announce iOS 10.

  1. I realize this is something that Google could change at some point. But this is also true for Microsoft and any third-party keyboard developer. ↩︎
  2. I’m referring to full cursor control, not simply moving the cursor horizontally which I have seen in third-party keyboards. ↩︎
  3. Thanks Ronnie Lutes for the reminder. ↩︎
  4. Which, let’s be honest, is due for some major changes. ↩︎