An Attempt to Change Typing Across iOS
Back in February, I backed a Kickstarter project with a mission to remake the iOS keyboard. Unlike other third-party keyboards, this one specifically was taking charge for Apple devices only. When I gave them the five bucks or so it cost to back the project, I felt that this was a unique proposition, and was excited by the notion of a focused keyboard replacement (so many other third-party keyboards were and continue to be built for all operating systems, you'd think a focused app would take advantage of its core system better than one that wasn't).
And so the year went by until right around June when they offered a beta download for backers of the Next Keyboard project. I usually don’t test or run betas in lieu of a near-delivered product, but I was excited to try it out (I haven’t tried any other third-party keyboards on any of my devices before). Installation of Next (and any other keyboard) is a bit wonky. For the beta, they essentially provided instructions in the app proper, and the functioning keyboard wasn’t activated until you went into the Settings app > General > Keyboard and added it manually. (Apple could definitely improve this process in the future — it’s not a fault of the developers.)
Once installed, I gave it a whirl. That whirl lasted about five minutes as it was completely breaking the iOS experience with blank keyboards, preventing spotlight usage, etc. I uninstalled it immediately and decided to wait until the newer version came out.
And then the newer version came out a few months later. Went ahead and downloaded the app again. Same instructions, more or less. Did that. Added it. Wah-la. Much better already. The app transforms into a marketplace and provides all the settings for configuring your keyboard. Something I wasn’t anticipating (probably because I stopped following updates) was the ability to change the theme of the keyboard so fluidly. Nearly a dozen themes exist today, and I’m sure more are planned for the future. They all look great.
In addition to themes are stickers. If you’re familiar with Line or WhatsApp or apparently now Facebook Messenger, stickers are larger-than-emoji sized images that can be used when communicating with others — which is probably only done in a messaging or social media app. These stickers were free, but I’m assuming this is a marketing arena made to generate revenue, so the more sticker packs they come out with in the future, the more they’ll likely have the propensity to charge for them.
With all this being said — how does the actual keyboard function now that it’s been officially released? (That is, of course, the most important component of arguably one of the most important functionalities of a mobile device). To be honest, it’s a mixed bag. Here’s the rundown the of things Next does right, and where it has some misses.
What Next Does Right
- The themes are beautiful, so pulling up that keyboard in any context is a delight
- The emoji picker is brilliantly integrated into the keyboard pane, and it’s easily scrollable
- Stickers are easily accessible as well, and Next makes it easy to paste them into conversations (unfortunately, due to technical obstacles, you can’t just tap a sticker and assume it will populate in the Messages app — it must be copy and pasted. Next copies it for you, and simply suggests you tap the text field to paste)
- Text navigating is done in a wonderful way (even ahead of the changes Apple is making in iOS 9 for iPad). Essentially, you tap and hold on the spacebar, and slide left or right to weave the cursor through the text on the screen. Simple, intuitive, and functionally sound. I really like this.
- iOS/Apple device only. This helps limit the resources and improves the focus on the software moving forward.
Where Next Falls Short
Unfortunately, for all the great things Next does right, it has some major shortfalls:
- They removed the microphone shortcut in their keyboard design. Not sure if this is a limitation imposed by Apple or not, but I actually find myself using it on occasion, especially if I’m doing the walk-and-text thing around Chicago — way easier to just tap that microphone button and say what I need to type and send away.
- They have access to everything you type, apparently. I’m assuming they’re classy and not tracking this stuff, but you can never be sure. (And to note, all third-party keyboards have this same caveat.)
- There’s a lag in pulling up Next keyboard. This is usually always the case, and that one or so extra second of lag is really annoying, especially if you’re used to the speed at which iOS keyboard pulls up (immediately). This is part of the deal breaker for me. Again, this may be a limitation caused by Apple’s SDK component for third-party keyboards, but either way, it renders this keyboard that much more unusable on a daily basis.
- It still doesn’t activate all the time. This is the other deal breaker for me, and the reason I removed Next again from my device. Sometime I’ll pull down on the home screen to get to Spotlight, or open Messages to resume a conversation, and the keyboard won’t roll up (the cursor will just sit in the text field). This requires a force-quit of the app, which usually fixes it, but that doesn’t solve the Spotlight issue. Regardless of what the problem is, this is unacceptable for any third-party keyboard software.
Overall, the Next keyboard is a tremendous effort in squeezing a lot of functionality in a great, well-designed keyboard. Whether by its manufacture or through limitations in the iOS SDK, however, its problems outweigh its benefits and I can’t rightly recommend it until those technicalities are dealt with.
Let’s hope that the incremental improvements in iOS 9’s keyboard for iPad reinvigorate the third-party keyboard market to improve designs and functionalities (and prompt Apple to fix issues inherent in their SDK) so that we can continue to see improvements to the way we interact with our devices.