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iOS is still keeping other keyboards from greatness

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Why can't anyone else use dictation?

iOS 8 Keyboard

Ask a toddler — sharing is tough stuff. And it hasn’t always been easy for tech companies, either. Take Apple, for example. For years, the company got zinged for not sharing iOS with third-party keyboard developers. Finally, with the release of iOS 8 in September 2014, Apple opened its gates. Any keyboard could be downloaded, opened, and used with Apple’s apps — even its core iOS apps like Mail, Messages, Phone, and Contacts. People who were fans of popular keyboards like Swype and SwiftKey rejoiced. Most recently, Microsoft released Word Flow, an iOS version of the Windows Phone keyboard, and Google brought out Gboard, its keyboard with built-in search.

But none of these third-party keyboards can use my favorite keyboard tool, speech-to-text dictation. This is the feature that gets triggered by the tiny microphone icon to the left of the space bar in Apple’s default keyboard. Tap it, speak, and your words get translated into text that shows up on the screen so you don’t have to walk and type with your head down. Dictation isn’t perfect, but I use it dozens of times a day and it continues to get better and better. So why isn’t Apple sharing this feature with third-party keyboards? Apple’s answer: privacy.

Apple has long been a stalwart for erring on the side of caution when it comes to keeping your data private and asking you to make sure you know you’re sharing something. The company’s policy is to not allow microphone access for extensions (like these keyboards) because iOS has no way to make it clear that the phone is listening. The thinking is that giving third-party keyboards access to the microphone could allow nefarious apps to listen in on users without their knowledge.

In other words, iOS system limitations combined with Apple's views on privacy are preventing speech-to-text dictation features on third-party keyboards.

I install and try new keyboards pretty regularly, but I use the dictation button so much that I have to keep navigating back to Apple’s default keyboard. Just this week, I downloaded Google’s Gboard keyboard and, as expected, there’s no way to use speech-to-text with this keyboard. Instead, I have to navigate back to Apple’s default keyboard. Again.

To make things worse, navigating through keyboards — especially when you have several installed — can be mind-boggling. Lots of keyboards ask you to tap on the globe icon to switch to another keyboard, just like you do with Apple’s default keyboard. But keyboard developers can design their own way to switch to the next keyboard, so not all of them use the globe icon. If you’re like me and use SwiftKey, for example, there’s no globe icon on its keyboard. Instead, you have to long-press on the emoji icon and select "Switch to other keyboard." Or open the emoji keyboard and then tap on the globe icon.

Word Flow iOS
Microsoft's Word Flow keyboard for iOS

Want to get even more confused? Open the Messages app on iOS and you’ll likely see a different keyboard than the one you were using in another app. This is because one of the unique features in Messages is that it remembers what keyboard you used last with each contact. This can be helpful if you type in different languages with different people. But if you’re struggling to cycle through keyboards on other apps, then finally land on one you like, it’s maddening to open a conversation in Messages only to see yet another keyboard.

You might be wondering why I have so many keyboards, and why I don’t just settle for the default Apple keyboard. Part of why I use a bunch of keyboard extensions is because it’s my job to test different technology products. But I also like each of them for different reasons. SwiftKey knows me and seems to do a better job predicting my text than anyone else. Word Flow makes the delightful little "pop" typing sounds that I always liked on Windows Phone. Gboard is still new but I already like its built-in GIFs and emoji suggestions (I type "run" and a tiny running person shows up). Bitmoji is Bitmoji — good for a cheesy laugh with my sister or close friends.

If I open Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards, I can tap Edit in the top right and then grab handlebars on each keyboard to reorder them. This is only slightly helpful because even if I use the first two keyboards on my list (say Apple’s keyboard and the Gboard) more than all the others, I still have to shuffle through four other keyboards to get back to my beloved speech-to-text. The move from Gboard to Apple’s takes me six clicks. Six!

The worst part of all this is that I often use speech-to-text to talk into my phone when I don’t have my hands free to text. I’m rushing somewhere with one child balanced in the crook of my left arm and another child holding my hand. Six clicks feels more like six days.

What could solve this? I wouldn’t mind a physical button for speech-to-text that could work from whatever app I’m using. Apple could even show me its huge sound line at the bottom of the screen and make noises to tell me that listening was starting and stopping. I’m not using my Home button for Siri, so that’s free. Or maybe Apple could think of a way to show me whenever anything was being recorded on keyboards, like the green bar iOS displays when you’re still on a call and navigate away to a new app.

Apple has a lot of reasons for not sharing the iOS dictation function with third-party keyboard extensions. But if they're not going to share, they need to ease the process of navigating through several keyboards — especially when you have your hands full.


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