The original iPhone keyboard, introduced in 2007, was revolutionary for its time. But now it's 2014 and the state of the art of keyboards has changed. Prediction has taken the place of correction and third parties are now making innovative multitouch keyboards all their own. So, with iOS 8, Apple has responded with a new, contextually predictive keyboard system called QuickType, and with the option to add third-party keyboards as well. They're part of the new Extensibility features, which also include interactive notification, Notification Center widgets, inter-app communications, and much, much more. So, how do the new keyboard features in specific work?
Virtual keyboards have many advantages over hardware keyboards. While they don't allow for touch-typing or persistent shortcuts, they can fully disappear when not in use to allow for the full surface of the phone to be used for watching videos, playing games, surfing the web, and more. They can also change configuration and optimize themselves for different language and tasks. For example, Apple has given the iPhone's keyboard the ability to take on different layouts like AZERTY, different character sets like Arabic and Cyrillic, as accept both key-based and hand-drawing input methods for Asian characters.
Individual characters can also change dynamically to allow for things like accented letters, internet domain types, and even shortcuts to punctuation. Apple has also given developers the ability to customize keyboards within their own apps, including the ability to create specialized keyboards for things like spread sheets. Using the same speech-to-text system as Siri, the Dictation feature also lets you talk instead of write.
With iOS 8, text-to-speech will also be streaming, so no more talk-wait-talk-wait. What you say will just appear. But Apple hasn't forgotten about the keyboard either.
Rather than auto-correction, Apple's new QuickType keyboard in iOS 8 introduces contextual prediction. As you type, the keyboard will suggest what it thinks are the most likely words based on what you're typing. See the one you want, hit it, the word is typed and you can move on to the next one.
To help up the odds Apple isn't just predicting your words in general but they're contextualizing them based on the app you're using and the person, if any, you're communicating with. For example, if you're in Messages, QuickType will predict words that are more casual than if you're in Mail. Likewise if you're conversing with a friend rather than a boss or business partner. What's more, based on the context of the message, QuickType can and will present you with obvious responses. For example, if you're asked if you want to go to dinner or a movie, QuickType can show you responses that prefer one to the other, both or neither.
How many letters (key presses) the contextual prediction actually saves you will depend on how well the system works and, frankly, how predictable you are. QuickType will learn as you use it, so odds are it'll get better over time.
In the best case scenario, when and if the prediction is perfect you'll only have to tap once per word. In the worst you'll forget to use it, start typing the old fashioned auto-correct way, hit the wrong first letter off the bat, and wonder why nothing suggested makes any sense.
The new QuickType system is going to launch with support for multiple languages and variants around the world, including U.S. English, U.K. English, Canadian English, Australian English, French, German, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai. Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, and Japanese are listed as already having predictive input.
English optimized for the U.S., UK, Canada and Australia; French; German; Italian; Portuguese optimized for Brazil; Spanish
Third party keyboards
In addition to QuickType, with iOS 8 developers will also be able to offer their own keyboards. That means, more than likely, SwiftKey, Swype, and other keyboards long enjoyed by Android customers, as well as new and innovative keyboards not yet imagined.
Third party keyboards will work as part of the new Extensibility features which let apps present remote views to other apps. While Apple has supported custom keyboards in apps for a long time, this new version allows the keyboards to be selected and used system-wide.
For example, download the Swype app and, with exceptions (see below) you can make the Swype keyboard the default for every app on your iPhone or iPad.
There are still some lingering questions when it comes to implementation. For example, what would the Swype app do on its own? Provide a tutorial? If the Swype app is deleted, the custom keyboard extension gets deleted with it, so will there be a warning provided to make sure people know and understand that, especially if they haven't looked at the app in weeks or months and forgotten why it exists?
Download/delete/re-download is a simple process understood my hundreds of millions of iPhone and iPad customers. Extensibility offers new functionality beyond that of the traditional app. Somewhere, somehow, both Apple's procedures and our understandings are going to have to grow and mature.
Security and privacy
iOS, being a privacy- and security-first operating system, does place some limitations on keyboards, both their own new QuickType system and third-party systems.
For QuickType, all learning for the prediction system is kept on-device. Your typing patterns aren't shared with Apple or anyone else. Extensibility in general doesn't sync (yet), but that does mean you'll have to "train" every device separately. It's unclear whether or not restoring a device from backup will restore the prediction system to its last trained state, because that would require it being stored on iCloud servers, off the device.
For third party keyboards, they too have to constrain themselves to the local device. That's to prevent key-logging activity. (Where a malicious app steals what you're typing.) If the keyboard does want to add server-side intelligence (which can improve the system), it has to ask your express permission. Apple will then warn you about the app having access to your credit card or street address information, but let you go ahead if you choose to.
What's more, whenever you move to a secure password field, third party keyboards are temporarily disabled and the standard iOS 8 keyboard is presented instead. This is not only to prevent key-loggers but anyone at all from having any way form of access to your passwords whatsoever.
Apple will no doubt also provide appropriate toggles in the Settings app should we wish to change our minds later.
Extensibility both maintains the high level of iOS security many of us have come to hold dear yet also enables incredible new amounts of functionality. The new contextually predictive keyboard system, QuickType, is one example. The new third party keyboard support is another. We'll have to wait for fall to see how well they work, but it should amount to the difference between fantastic and phenomenal.