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A Brief Introduction to SwiftKey for iOS, a Smart Keyboard That Learns Your Quirks

·National Correspondent, Technology
iPhone keyboard
iPhone keyboard


On Wednesday, Apple will release iOS 8, its updated mobile operating system. As usual, that release will arrive with lots of helpful updates, including the somewhat banal-sounding ability to install third-party keyboards.

This development might not seem like a big deal. Who cares about your keyboard when there are cool new camera features to play with?

But while you’ve been shaking your fist at autocorrect all these years, companies like Google, Minuum, Fleksy, and SwiftKey have been improving the keyboard experience, bettering the standard iOS keyboard by miles, creating systems that learn from the way you type to offer more efficient texting on your phone or tablet.

One of the most popular options on Android, which has long allowed third-party keyboards, is SwiftKey. SwiftKey will launch alongside iOS 8 in the App Store on Wednesday.

Though Apple plans to debut its own predictive typing tool as well, SwiftKey’s technology — which has been thoroughly tested since the launch of its beta Android app in 2010 — is decidedly more mature. It automatically analyzes your text and syncs what it’s learned across all your devices, providing a customized and ultimately more efficient typing experience.

Below is a brief run-through of the freshly released iOS 8 app and its best and worst features. Note that you’ll need to download iOS 8 in order to use SwiftKey. (It should become available sometime Wednesday afternoon.)

Understanding SwiftKey’s access
Once you’ve downloaded the SwiftKey app, you’ll be prompted to log in with either your Google or Facebook account. If you’ve used SwiftKey on non-Apple devices before, it’s best to use your Google account, as it will seamlessly transfer all the learning it did on past devices to the keyboard you load on your iPhone.

To then install the SwiftKey keyboard so that it will appear anytime you type on your phone or tablet, go to Settings. Scroll down to General.

iPhone iOS 8 Settings screen
iPhone iOS 8 Settings screen

Then scroll down again to select Keyboard.

iPhone iOS 8 General Settings screen
iPhone iOS 8 General Settings screen

From there, tap Keyboard, and you’ll be brought to the list of keyboards you already have installed. If you are reading this right now, I’m assuming you have English. If you don’t also have Emoji, you haven’t lived. If at any time you’d like to arrange what order these keyboards appear in within an app, tap the Edit button and drag them up and down the right side of the screen. But for now just select Add New Keyboard.

iPhone iOS 8 Keyboard Settings screen
iPhone iOS 8 Keyboard Settings screen

Two lists of options will pop up: Third-Party Keyboards and Apple-made keyboards. If you’ve already downloaded the SwiftKey app, it should be listed as an option under the former. (With any luck, yours will not be the beta version).

iPhone iOS 8 Keyboard Settings screen
iPhone iOS 8 Keyboard Settings screen

Once you selected SwiftKey, you’ll get a pop-up asking whether you’re willing to give SwiftKey “full access.”

SwiftKey permissions screen
SwiftKey permissions screen

The warning is admittedly scary, considering that it says SwiftKey can “transmit anything” I type and things I’ve “previously typed,” including my “credit card number or street address.” To clear up what this means, I asked the company’s chief marketing officer Joe Braidwood to explain why his keyboard needs such an intense number of capabilities.

“The thing about the Apple design is that without full access, the keyboard operates in its own little sandbox,” he told Yahoo Tech. “So all of the language tracking, cloud syncing, and all of the slightly more complicated features we’ve built need that access so our app can talk to it. It allows SwiftKey to pass information to the keyboard, to make it useful rather than just pretty.”

SwiftKey, for what it’s worth, isn’t angling to make money by selling your personal information (or address) to companies, but rather via in-app purchases of add-on features. If you want to learn more about its privacy policy, check it out here.

What it can do
After you’ve downloaded and installed the keyboard, just start using it. Think of it as a sponge of language. While you’re texting, emailing, or chatting, the keyboard soaks in your interactions in the following ways:

Analyzes your tone.Everyone has a set of phrases she overuses. That’s what makes you the special snowflake that you are. Over time, SwiftKey recognizes what words you most commonly type after others and suggests them in a grid above the keyboard. For instance, after a few days of use, SwiftKey has already recognized that the words “Omg I’m totally,” are usually followed with “down.” And that the slightly different “Omg I totally,” is then followed with “forgot.”

iPhone Messages app showing text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard
iPhone Messages app showing text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard

This is probably not Webster dictionary-approved English, but it’s how I talk to my friends, and I appreciate that SwiftKey gets that.

Condones and remembers made-up words. This feature is the most helpful for those of you who think that Messages’ autocorrect dictionary was edited by a 90-year-old man who lives in an isolated cabin in the woods. Rather than slap you on the wrist and replace your cool slang or swear word with something nonsensical, SwiftKey acknowledges the gibberish you’ve typed and, if you use it enough, even prioritizes it.

For instance, I made up a word to call my colleague Daniel, who hates anchovies: an anchovynist.

iPhone Messages app showing text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard
iPhone Messages app showing text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard

When I first typed this in, SwiftKey’s suggestion grid pushed it to the left (the hardest-to-access spot). I had two options at that point: Press the space bar to let it replace the word with one of its two wonky suggestions (“Anchovy most” or “Anchovy must”), or deliberately tap the original word I wrote as a way of saying, “Accept my unique voice, keyboard.”

iPhone Messages app showing text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard
iPhone Messages app showing text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard

The next time I wanted to cyberbully Daniel with that nickname, I started to type the same word, and it was automatically suggested, halfway into me entering it.

iPhone Messages app showing text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard
iPhone Messages app showing text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard

This means you’ll be free to type out all sorts of hip and invented words. Not to mention work in some good nicknames.

Heat-maps your typing fumbles. Unless you plan to purchase an iPhone 6 Plus, you’ll likely be using this keyboard on your iPhone’s relatively small screen. And, as I’m sure you’ve learned, big, round fingers are not the best tools for tapping small, square letters. To combat the typos caused by this problem, SwiftKey keeps track of what areas of the screen your finger comes in contact with on a daily basis, in addition to corrections to what you’ve typed.

As Braidwood describes it, the feature “assesses the ambiguity of where you press by building a Gaussian model that looks at all the keys in a particular area and thinks about which ones relate to other potential keys.”

For instance, maybe you always type “Mt” rather than “My.” It’s an easy mistake to make; T is right next to Y! But if you do this over and over again, SwiftKey will take that into account and automatically fix it.

• Lets you drag your fingers.Though swipe-based typing features have been around for a long time in other operating systems, Apple loyalists will find this SwiftKey feature particularly exciting. If you’re in a bumpy car or train and would prefer not to lift your finger from the screen, you can simply slide it from letter to letter. A faint blue trail will follow, and the keyboard will (pretty accurately) guess what you mean to say.

iPhone Messages app showing text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard
iPhone Messages app showing text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard

Knows when to add a space.

Finally, a small but helpful tool within the app recognizes when to separate words from each other.

iPhone Messages app showing text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard
iPhone Messages app showing text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard

Those are all great things! But SwiftKey’s first iOS 8 app still has its limits.

What it can’t do
• It can’t predict emoji.
In its Andriod app, SwiftKey added the capability to predict emoji in your conversations, the same way it can predict words, as demonstrated below:

Text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard
Text exchange with SwiftKey keyboard

Unfortunately, this is missing in SwiftKey’s iOS version. Currently, to access emoji from the SwiftKey keyboard, you must tap the globe icon. That’s an annoying process for anyone who peppers her messages with sassy moon faces.

It doesn’t know who you’re talking to. Though Apple allows SwiftKey access to the text of your conversations, it blocks the company from seeing whom you’re communicating with. As a result, SwiftKey can’t tailor its predictions based on whether you’re talking to your boyfriend versus your boss. The closest it comes to that is recognizing the type of tone you’ve adopted for a conversation (for instance, using contractions or certain vocabulary might signify it’s a casual, rather than a formal, exchange).

Apple, on the other hand, bragged that its predictive text would be able to understand your relationship to whomever you’re chatting with and adjust its suggestions accordingly. I’ve had a chance to try out the early stages of this technology only in its beta version, so I can’t say if it ultimately makes Apple’s version better.

It’s not all free. As I mentioned before, SwiftKey is angling to make money via add-on features, like keyboards in jazzy colors and other fun stuff like that. So don’t be surprised if future options are locked away behind a paywall.

Worth a try?
Most definitely! It’s free, after all. At the very least, it’ll be a nice place to hide while Apple works out the inevitable kinks in its homemade keyboard.

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her here.