Developers have been asking Apple to open up iOS to other keyboards for years, and today the company obliged. As part of iOS 8, which will be released in the fall, users can swap out Apple's keyboard with ones made by other companies. Users have been long able to do that on Google's Android, but it's been far more difficult on iOS, requiring either a jailbreak or individual developers to supply their own specialty keyboard features.
Following Apple's annual developers keynote earlier today, a number of prominent third-party software keyboard makers now say they're already at work on those keyboards, and plan to let people try them out ahead of time.
"As the first keyboard company to be active on iOS, and one of the most active even before today's announcements, we can't hide our excitement for today's news that Apple will allow third party keyboards to be used systemwide on iOS 8," says Fleksy founder Ioannis Verdelis. "We will, of course, be part of this." The company's already set up a beta where users can sign up to try it.
Developers are already letting people sign up to test
Swiftkey, which is installed on more than 200 million devices worldwide, also says it's begun development on a keyboard for iOS 8, building off the one it introduced as part of a note-taking app for Evernote earlier this year.
"We're delighted Apple has decided to embrace the importance of opening its platform to third-party keyboards," Swiftkey founders Jon Reynolds and Ben Medlock said in a statement. "Are we going to build SwiftKey Keyboard for iOS 8? Of course we are. We've already started."
The benefits of third-party keyboards go beyond theming or extra buttons. Solutions like Swype and Swiftkey offer features that let users type out words without lifting their fingers from the screen. The companies can also push out new words and phrases to user dictionaries for things like autocompletion and autocorrect. This happened last year when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named Pope Francis, says Swype chief operating officer Aaron Sheedy.
"Bergoglio was in nobody's dictionary, and then he was a pope candidate," Sheedy says. "We pushed it out to millions and millions of phones." Having more potential users from iOS will provide the company with a more regional view of the way language is changing in real time, Sheedy added.
Alternate keyboards bring crowd-sourced dictionaries
Sheedy demurred on whether the company had a version of the software ready ahead of Apple's iOS 8 announcement. A screenshot mock-up of Swype for iOS 8 was shown off briefly by Apple earlier today, though was not demoed.
A beta version of iOS 8 became available for developers today, and Apple plans to open it up for non-developers as part of its Appleseed beta program. A full release of the software is expected in the fall, very likely in time with a new version (or versions) of the iPhone.