Ahead of WWDC, Swiftkey and others expected third-party keyboards would be allowed to run the iPhone system. They weren’t: here’s why

Ahead of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June, there was mounting expectation that the keynote announcements would include APIs which would let third-party apps become the defaults – or at least, that third-party keyboards would be enabled.

Come the speech itself, however, there was nothing of the sort – and nothing in the followup developer sessions, and no APIs exposed in the beta.

Cue mournful faces from companies like Britain’s Swiftkey, which had been hoping for a one-two this year. Its keyboard is already the default on BlackBerry’s BB10, introduced earlier this year; it has been downloaded more than 10m times (and less than 50m) from the Google Play store. Ahead of the keynote, the company had high – extremely high – hopes of good news.

The reason: Tim Cook had hinted at “opening up” iOS while on stage at the All Things Digital conference in May. Joe Braidwood, chief marketing officer of Swiftkey told me this week: “We were being hopeful based on Tim’s comments at D11. We were disappointed that Apple didn’t liberalise its mobile OS to allow third parties to innovate the typing experience. We’d hoped this would happen, based on Tim Cook’s comments at D11 that iOS would be opened up in the future.”

Braidwood adds: “We’re strong believers that improving the text input experience is one of the real areas for improvement in iOS, and some of the tweaks that have happened to the autocorrection engine in iOS 7 only act to underline that assertion.”

Certainly over at iMore, which aims at Apple readers, a poll found that nearly 40% want third-party software keyboards on the iPhone, and that 26% said “options are good”. That’s two-thirds of respondents who definitely or probably would like a third-party keyboard. (If you want to turn it on its head, around 60% haven’t expressed a definite desire for a third-party keyboard. But that would be hairsplitting.)

Given that apparent depth of feeling, why hasn’t Apple done so? One point that Rene Ritchie makes at iMore is that having optional keyboards is the exception, rather than the rule. You can’t use a third-party keyboard on Windows Phone. Nor on BB10 – the Swiftkey interface is what you get. Of course, you can’t change it on iOS. Android is the only place where you can. There, keyboards such as Swiftkey (between 10m and 50m downloads) and Swype (around 1m downloads for the trial and paid versions together) certainly have their fans – though compared to an active Android population of, very conservatively, 600m phones outside China (as those in China can’t access the Google Play store), a maximum of 8% of people (50m of 600m) have bothered to change their keyboard even when they can.

In fact, just as on the desktop, 95% of people don’t change defaults.

Yet my understanding, from what we could call “sources familiar with Apple’s thinking on

Read more here: Why Apple won't let you change the default keyboard (or other apps)