So long, Swype: A eulogy for a mobile keyboard pioneer

Swype hasn't been spectacular in a long time, but its impact on Android and mobile typing in general is undeniable.

Swype Keyboard Eulogy
JR Raphael

Dearly beloved, we gather here today to celebrate the life and honor the memory of an Android pioneer whose impact on mobile technology is still felt by all of us today.

Swype, the keyboard app that introduced swipe-to-type input to the masses with its once-unmatched Android text input system, passed away quietly in its sleep on Monday. The app's health had been in steady decline for some years, and its adoptive father, Nuance, has now confirmed it has been taken off life support and will no longer be developed.

Swype, born in 2009, was one of the first third-party keyboards to gain massive success on the Android platform. Back in the days of the original Motorola Droid, it was a near-mythical creation — a keyboard that encouraged you to type without even lifting your finger?! — and for a long time, it was also vexingly difficult to find.

In 2010, a young and incredibly handsome tech columnist captured the mood of the era by pointing out the "weird sort of paradox" that "one of the most popular apps for Android [was] also one of the hardest to get." His words now serve as a lasting reminder of just how novel and unusual the swipe-to-type notion seemed in its early years:

Swype replaces your Android phone's on-screen keyboard with a slightly strange-sounding alternative: Rather than tapping keys individually, you slide your finger around your screen — without ever lifting it — to input the words you want. According to Swype's creators, this unique method of typing allows you to input text 30 percent faster than you could with a standard smartphone keyboard.

At that moment, when Froyo was still the most common Android version and Gingerbread was a fresh-out-of-the-oven delicacy, Swype had the Android world in a frenzy with its decision to accept a small number of new beta testers into its limited circle of approved users. A select few devices had the app preloaded by default, but everyone else was left to watch from the outside with envy (or, as was perhaps more common among the Android enthusiast community, to scour the various forums and find an unofficially released APK to sideload onto their unlocked Nexus S phones).

Swype Beta - Dec. 2010

Swype went on to delight Android enthusiasts by launching a Honeycomb-specific tablet version of its keyboard in 2011 (in a pre-release beta, of course) — an experience "just as sweet as its smartphone counterpart," as one strikingly dapper scribe put it.

Swype Keyboard Honeycomb JR

Lest you think we exaggerate Swype's significance as we eulogize, let us all remember: Google itself didn't add gesture-based typing into its own Android keyboard until late 2012, with its Android 4.2 Jelly Bean release. (At that point, Google's keyboard was still bundled into the operating system and intended mostly for Nexus devices.)

SwiftKey, meanwhile — now owned by Microsoft but then still an independent operation — followed suit that same year. It introduced the feature initially as part of a separate beta program called SwiftKey Flow but eventually integrated it into its main SwiftKey product.

And Apple still doesn't have gesture-based typing in its magical and revolutionary native iOS keyboard. In fact, the iPhone faithful weren't able to experience any sort of swipe-oriented typing until 2014, when their mobile tech guardians finally opened the gates to third-party keyboards and throngs of iDevice owners celebrated their newfound ability to, at long last, swipe.

Swype was the one that started it all — and for many moons, it was the keyboard you sought if you wanted to save time with that wild new swipe-to-type method. So let's all pour one out for our fallen comrade. You may have lost that spark long ago, dear friend, but we'll always remember your glory days and be grateful for what you gave us.

Goodnight, sweet prince.

Sign up for JR's new weekly newsletter to get this column along with bonus tips, personal recommendations, and other exclusive extras delivered to your inbox.

AI Newsletter

[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon