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Third-party keyboards – do we really need them any more?

From swipe-to-type to more esoteric keyboard input, should you venture beyond Apple’s defaults?

In 2014, Apple did the unthinkable, opening up the iOS keyboard itself to third-party developers. For a company that had always retained control over the entire user experience, this was a big step.

Four years later, what is the state of custom keyboards on iOS, do we really need them, and are they a privacy risk too far in an age of website hacks, scams, and dodgy online actors?

Third-party keyboards: the good

Updates for Apple’s keyboard arrive with the urgency of a glacier. Now and again, there’s an extra little nugget: holding down Space to get a moveable cursor, or utilizing the QuickType bar’s autocorrect to quickly insert two-factor authentication codes.

But it’s in the third-party space that companies innovate. Plenty of keyboards reason that tapping individual virtual keys is as dated as tapping real physical keys on a phone. So they let you swipe about, and intelligently figure out what letters you were vaguely aiming at. When this works well, it’s blazingly fast and feels like magic.

Elsewhere, keyboards integrate with online services or apps, enabling you to automatically translate text, insert GIFs, or work with items copied to a multiple-item clipboard. From a functionality perspective, they can make Apple’s keyboard seem comparatively prehistoric.

Third-party keyboards: the bad

The problem when you bolt third-party components on to any operating system is that the end result has a tendency to feel disconnected. That’s very much the case with keyboards.

Install several, and you tap-hold a button to get at a selection menu, but switching nonetheless feels awkward and slow. Also, because keyboards don’t all align perfectly with iOS norms, using them may feel alien.

Another issue is you’ll often find yourself frequently being bumped back to the standard keyboard, such as when typing in a password. This is a smart decision for security reasons, but nonetheless makes your keyboard experience feel incoherent.

Third-party keyboards: the ugly

On that previous point, you might argue Apple could do with toning down the paranoia, but it’s probably got the balance right. One of the problems with allowing a third party to weld a keyboard to your iPhone or iPad is it could theoretically log everything you write.

That might sound hyperbolic, but when you give a keyboard ‘full access’ in Settings, you’re granting it internet access and the means to transmit whatever you type. Prior to doing so, you’d be well advised to scrutinize the developer’s privacy policy, to see just what happens to your data. Sure, most third parties are just trying to help you use your device a little more efficiently; but it pays to be careful.

If in doubt, stick to the original – and keep bugging Apple until it implements swipe-to-type.