In 2007, early iPhone users had a problem. They wanted to take a snippet of text from one place to another, and their phones wouldn't let them do it. It would take until midway through 2009 for copy and paste to arrive as part of a software update from Apple. That's ages in the technology world, and some savvy developers couldn't wait. They managed to jury-rig a solution that beat Apple to the punch, though it ultimately failed to catch on.
That stand-in was something called OpenClip, which arrived in 2008. It created a simple scratch pad that could be shared between apps, and developers just needed to add the feature to their own software. Only a small number of apps did so, and once Apple added its own utility, OpenClip faded away into irrelevance. Now one company is trying find success with a similar effort that targets an even more critical part of using an iPhone: the entire keyboard.
For the past year and a half, San Francisco-based Fleksy has offered up its own keyboard app for iOS. And starting today, the company wants to spread that keyboard to other apps, launching a kit that lets other developers insert it into their own software with a single line of code. The end result is a completely different, alternate keyboard, and one that users could be familiar with from app to app.
Fleksy has existed on iOS as a neat technology demo
Fleksy's been on iOS since last June, but it's existed more as a neat technology demo than a viable replacement to the unchangeable Apple keyboard. It's a piece of software designed for both power users and for people with vision problems, combining gestures and touch typing to speed up writing on tiny screens. Users can swipe their thumb to make spaces between words and slide between suggested words before they're finished typing them out.
Like so many other alternate keyboards, the goal of Fleksy is to go beyond what smartphone makers offer out of the box, speeding things up where possible and simplifying others. Fleksy's creators go so far as to say you can even type on it without looking, like people do on physical computer keyboards. Yet, so far it's only existed as a standalone app, where users peck things out, are maybe impressed by the features, then need to copy and paste the text elsewhere if they want to do anything with it.
Bringing Fleksy to other iOS apps is not without its challenges. Unlike Android, which is open to all sorts of third-party keyboard creations, Apple gives you its keyboard and nothing else. Developers can build their own special keyboards on an app-by-app basis, though it's uncommon. Google's done that with a handful of its iOS apps, while Wolfram Alpha's special search app keyboard takes up nearly the entire screen with custom buttons. Although it was rumored Apple was considering opening up to third-party keyboard makers, ultimately it didn't. But it did throw developers a bone by simplifying its software tools, says Fleksy founder Ioannis Verdelis.
"With every new version of iOS the work required on our part to build a keyboard SDK has reduced significantly," he says. "We're [now] doing stuff on iOS that integrates the keyboard deeper than it's ever been integrated."
The company is starting that integration inside four independent task apps made by other companies: unofficial Google voice tool GV Connect, typing aid Blindsquare, text editor Wordbox, and productivity tool Launch Center Pro. Each of these apps will be pushing out updates that include Fleksy's keyboard as an option instead of the one that comes built into iOS. The company is also opening it up for other app makers to get access to the API and include the Fleksy keyboard in their own apps, though it's not open to everyone. Companies need to request the feature, and Fleksy gets to decide who gets access. For now, Verdelis says that's so the company can make sure everything looks good and is simple to toggle.
If there's a wrinkle in Fleksy's plan, it's that the company is not clear how these other app developers should be offering the keyboard to users. Verdelis says he's leaving it up to others to determine whether they want to offer Fleksy as a free add-on, or as a paid upgrade through in-app purchase. That could mean a user pays over and over again in multiple apps to get access to the system they're used to.
That's a completely different business from what Fleksy's done on Android, and different from any other software keyboard maker. The company launched its keyboard on Android last week for free, which Verdelis says has already been downloaded more than 100,000 times. The company eventually charges $3.99, but users get to try it free for 30 days. Once installed, keyboards like Fleksy work everywhere. But competition on Android for keyboards is much fiercer. Fleksy's up against Swiftkey, Swype, and TouchPal. Each has a gimmick and can be switched out at a moment's notice, though just as easily be forgotten.
Ambition that outstrips reality
For Fleksy, Apple's platform offers a tantalizingly large library of software to integrate into, with current estimates hovering around a million apps. By piggybacking on the right ones, Verdelis hopes to do what was difficult for OpenClip in 2008, and now obviously impossible in 2013: get "every app" to buy into the idea that another keyboard is good idea, and let someone else control how people poke and prod at their favorite apps.
"It's always impossible to see until you've done it," Verdelis says.
Four down. Only a million apps to go.