How Top-Selling Genius Keyboard SwiftKey Got So Smart

Launching an app is hard to do: SwiftKey mastered it on Android. Now cofounders Jon Reynolds and Ben Medlock head into iOS. Here are the lessons they're bringing with them.

Using SwiftKey is like having a psychic best friend who is also a keyboard. With a debut on iOS, the Android-topping app is in the first stages of befriending a whole new ecosystem.

"The thing that drives SwiftKey is that it's very good at guessing, given what you've said already, what it is you're likely to say next," says cofounder Jon Reynolds. "That's not that different than if I've been listening to you speak for a very long time. By picking up the patterns of the way you use language, I'm able to actually be quite accurate in predicting what it is you're most likely to say next."

Co-founders Jon Reynolds and Ben Medlock

To do that, SwiftKey pulls patterns from of all the text you've written in the app—it's called language modeling—and combines that with the habits with which you tap upon the touch screen. In this way, SwiftKey gets to know you and gets smart about predicting what you're going to type next and correcting the typing mistakes you make.

First launched in late 2009, the rapid rise of SwiftKey shows that there's demand for a building a better keyboard. In 2011, they had 1 million users; in 2012, 30 million; in 2013, 100 million. 6.5 billion characters are written a day. To date, users have saved half a trillion keystrokes. That's led to SwiftKey landing as the top paid Android app for two years running. After much waiting, a version of SwiftKey came to iOS last week.

Luckily for SwiftKey, they're trained in launches.

What you learn in an initial launch

"You've got those one-shot moments," Reynolds says, "where if the launch goes well, it really sets up the momentum for the coming months thereafter."

This first happened back at the initial Android launch in ‘09. In those furtive first keystrokes, they reached out to what was then a small group of Android bloggers and asked if anybody wanted to try a new keyboard product called SwiftKey.

That evening a couple hundred people got in touch. Within a week, it was a couple thousand.

"If those earliest adopters wouldn't have liked what we were doing, that could have been a make-or-break," he says, "but because they responded really well, that group grew bigger and bigger."

By the time they launched on Android, SwiftKey had 50,000 beta testers.

What you learn after you've gotten really, really good at something

Cut to 2013: SwiftKey is a mature, assured, chart-topping Android product. Therein lies the dilemma. As Medlock tells us, when you've had a fair degree of success, there's an impulse to try and "reprint" that. But SwiftKey knew they'd keep keeping on with the keyboard. In order to keep the business itself fresh, they had to expand.

"When you put out a product that has more features than just a keyboard," he says, "if that product fails, then people label you as a one-hit wonder."

Thus SwiftKey Note, the note-taking app that learns your typing tendencies. It's designed for students, journalists, and anyone else who might find themselves rapidly jamming text into their phones.

To avoid one-hit-wonderdom, Medlock says SwiftKey's translating the lessons they've learned from Android into the iOS launch.
That means thorough testing, an emphasis on quality, and engaging with the App Store. There are major differences: while Android runs on a thousand-some devices on a range of manufacturers, iOS is Apple-Only. The App Store and Google Play do their ranking and featuring differently.

"We thought, ‘let's try to not have any preconceived ideas of what must be and mustn't be,'" Medlock says. "Coming from the background of complexity (on Android) allowed us to have a more singular focus in what we were able to achieve on iOS."

Respect your platform

Of course, the big difference between what a keyboard app can achieve between Android and iOS is how much it can pervade the user's experience. On Android, SwiftKey could take over as the default keyuboard; on iOS, the only option is to become the keyboard product-by-product, partnership by partnership.

The first is an integration with Evernote, the beloved save-everything-you-can productivity app. Since there are so many cases where a better keyboard is beneficial, Reynolds says he can see that there's lots of opportunities for partnerships, as determined by who's got the most significant user base and placing where an integration would make the most sense—that would create the most value for SwiftKey, the partner, and the right experience for users. Though they wouldn't say they had a "specific target list," Evernote is the start of that journey.

"We'd love to get SwiftKey on every product on iOS and it could be the default keyboard, but that's more of a platform decision for Apple," Reynolds says.

Which leaves SwiftKey to adapt to rules of the ecosystem they're now entering.

"We very much respect the path that's Apple's taken, and clearly there are pros and cons in terms of how you make the underlying framework," Medlock adds. "For us, we can't control the underlying framework and ultimately that is Apple's decision. What we want to do with both platforms is use their own unique strengths to bring the best possible experience to our users."

The result, thus far: SwiftKey Note is the #1 productivity app in the App Store.

[Images courtesy of SwiftKey]

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