SwiftKey is free for Android, as predictive keyboard competition grows

Apple's upcoming QuickType keyboard for iOS 8 to add new prediction capabilities

Innovations for predictive virtual keyboards used in smartphones and tablets keep rolling in.

On Wednesday, the SwiftKey Keyboard app for Android smartphones and tablets that allows predictive typing was put up for free in Google Play. The app previously sold for $3.99.

In a blog, London and San Francisco-based SwiftKey also said it added 30 new keyboard designs and improved its prediction engine for what a user wants to type. The company also said keyboard supports 66 languages and claimed that users would be able to type up to three languages at once with improved accuracy.

The announcement came just nine days after Apple announced it will open its upcoming iOS 8 for iPads and iPhones to third-party keyboard apps, which will undoubtedly include keyboards from SwiftKey, Swype and a host of others. Shortly after the Apple announcement on June 2, SwiftKey said it had already begun developing a SwiftKey Keyboard app for iOS 8.

SwiftKey Keyboards
SwiftKey said its predictive keyboards would be free on Android devices. (Image: SwiftKey)

SwiftKey previously introduced SwiftKey Note in January for iOS, allowing users to take advantage of SwiftKey's artificial intelligent innovations with note-taking on iPhones and iPads. Since its introduction in 2010, the SwiftKey Keyboard has spent more days on the highest paid app list in Google Play than any other app, SwiftKey said in announcing the free version. SwiftKey Keyboard now runs on 200,000 devices worldwide, the company said.

While recent news in keyboard upgrades might sound minor in the overall complexity of a new device, messaging is still the most heavily used app on a smartphone and the competition among vendors making predictive keyboard apps is aggressive. Analysts say texting is especially popular with users under the age of 30, but also in many emerging countries, while virtual keyboards have become a mainstay for writing short emails from a smartphone or tablet.

Apple certainly took note of the importance of messaging in its iOS 8 Preview online, noting its Messages app is "the app you use most." Apple plans to make it possible for iOS 8 users to capture any sound and add it to a text conversation. Users also will be able to share a quick video or a location easily, among other improvements.

Apple also said it will bring the "biggest changes to the keyboard since the very first iPhone" with new predictive typing in its QuickType keyboard. Using its own prediction engine, the keyboard will take into account the recipient of the text and in which app a user is typing. In one example described on its Web site, Apple showed how word choices in an email would be more formal when sent to a colleague, while less formal in a text to a friend or relative.

Apple's predictive innovations appear to go beyond what other predictive keyboards now offer, but SwiftKey wasn't shy in a press release announcing its free version, calling it a "mind-reading" app.

Apple is clearly expecting its QuickType keyboard will be a hit with workers and average consumers alike, but analyst Jack Gold said many business users are slow to adopt virtual keyboard technologies. "Some enterprise users are still using hard keyboards on BlackBerry," said Gold of J. Gold Associates.

Even so, SwiftKey's move to make its keyboard app available for free is part of a trend toward "input competition," Gold said. "Users now expect input features on devices to be standard and free and, yes, Apple has raised the bar on this, but others -- even BlackBerry -- have recently enhanced look-ahead typing and word completion features.

"Most of this trend is about better communications with texting and email as users want to increase the speed of their replies," Gold said. "For most users, the amount of messages they deal with through email, Facebook and text has expanded greatly."

Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar WorldPanel, said there's "no question that messaging is a huge battlefield" among vendors. Milanesi said enterprise workers face a difficult time deciding whether to stay with a corporate-approved messaging app because the IT department says it is more secure, over a consumer-grade app that is more flexible and has more features.

"If my personal experience is something to go by, I avoid any kind of corporate messenger app on both my PC and phone and use consumer-grade apps instead," she said. "Personal convenience always comes before company security."

This article, SwiftKey is free for Android, as predictive keyboard competition grows, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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