Mobile operating systems keeping getting more powerful and feature-packed, and their cannibalizing the user bases of third-party apps in the process. We’ve seen it dozens of times.
As Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome browser added read-it-later features, the need for separate read-it-later apps disappeared. When Apple added its blue light-eliminating Night Shift mode to iPhones and Macs, it looked like the end for apps like f.lux specifically devoted to that task. And while it’s been a long time coming, now it’s third-party keyboards that are going by the wayside. The once popular keyboard Swype has officially been discontinued, with its owner Nuance saying that they’re ending support for the app and instead focusing their efforts on “A.I. solutions for sale directly to businesses.”
While I haven’t used Swype in years, the news came as a blow. For years, it was one of the best ways to text on a smartphone, whether iOS or Android, regardless of what app you were typing in. Autocorrect was ducking frustrating; autosuggest not yet existent. The Swype keyboard let you use one finger to smoothly type out word after word by swiping your finger around on the keyboard. You only needed to lift your finger to start a new word. The app could intelligently parse out what word you meant to type by the shape and areas of the keyboard your finger reached. It was borderline magical, and often faster than typing out words letter by letter with both thumbs. If not faster, it certainly spared you some muscle fatigue—yes, “smartphone thumb” is a real affliction, and Swype was a lifesaver.
While Swype-style keyboards were the first to use software smarts to improve the smartphone typing experience, as A.I. and machine learning improved it has slowly proved less and less necessary. In recent versions of both iOS and Android, autocorrect has made big leaps, making it less irritating when your thumbs accidentally mistype a letter. Predictive text, or auto suggestions, have also emerged. That’s been the real game changer. Having learned from your personal typing habits and the behaviors of millions of other smartphone typists, your phone can suggest a word once you start typing a letter, or a word to follow the one you just typed. Typing out a short message like “Heading home soon,” for example, is suddenly only a matter of typing a few letters, the autofill for the word “heading,” and two more taps from the predictive text menu above the keyboard to finish out the phrase. It’s darn fast, darn convenient, and totally replaces the need for a gesture-based keyboard like Swype.
While third-party keyboard support has been integral to Android for many years—in the early days of the smartphone wars, it was a key differentiating factor between platforms—it was big news when Apple began third-party keyboard support with iOS 8 in 2013. Swype was among the first apps available the day iOS 8 launched. And over the next few months, you could download all sorts of apps to customize the look, feel, gestures, and shortcuts of your personal smartphone keyboard. But in the updates in years since, both Apple and Google began to add functionality to their keyboards. In addition to some degree of A.I. and machine learning in their predictive text capabilities, smartphone keyboards today include built-in photo sending, stickers, and GIFs. And built into each OS’s default messaging app, you also get the ability to share your location with a friend and even the option to send or request money. They keyboard isn’t just a simple digital number and letterpad anymore, it’s a full-featured, multifaceted app in its own right.
And because of that, we must say goodbye to apps like Swype, which thrived in a bygone era of smartphone challenges. For those that still prefer to swipe their way around their keyboard, plenty of other options like Swiftkey are still available. But if Apple and Google continue to fulfill their job of improving their respective mobile operating systems, it wouldn’t be surprising if additional keyboard-centric favorites began disappearing, too.
In some ways, this is expected. OS makers should be making their platforms better, incorporating the best ideas of their competitors—and hopefully improving on them. However, we also lose something with this: some of our favorite apps, and some of the diversity that used to be inherent to the mobile experience. When everything comes from one company, it ensures smoothness and interoperability, but in the end, you typically lose some of the quirkiness and ingenuity that you’d find in separate third-party apps. Some also argue that such dominance, like how Facebook rips off key features from competitors, threatens the success of future startups. Ultimately, we need the Swypes of the world to keep making our phones better, but Swype’s role in our phones’ evolution is now done.