The Android app that’s arguably one of the best apps of all time turns out to be a productivity app called SwiftKey.It’s an application that tracks the way you write and automatically makes suggestions on what your next word should be. On a small keyboard, like that of a smartphone, it speeds up the process of typing immensely.
But the differentiating part of SwiftKey is that, among all the predictive text apps, SwiftKey actually works, and works exceptionally well. After you spend a few days with the keyboard, it will already begin guessing what it is you are trying to say.
As a result, it’s become a key point of differentiation for Android—and we argued was one of the main reasons you should switch to Android—and a big example of what kind of innovation can come out of a completely open platform like the Android ecosystem.
(You can download the app on the Google Play store. As a quick fun note, you can find out what your most-typed sentence is by hitting the predictive text right away. Mine is pictured below.)
We caught up with Joe Braidwood, chief marketing officer of SwiftKey, to find out more about the app and the team behind it. Here’s what we learned:
- SwiftKey is arguably the best-selling app of all time on Google’s app marketplace, Google Play. It’s sold as a premium app and regularly shows up in the top-10 rankings, usually at the number one spot.
- SwiftKey has more than 1 million active users. For a paid productivity app, that’s quite a good track record. SwiftKey is seen as one of the core differentiating apps on Android devices.
- The company works closely with Google and is seen as one of Android’s top developers internally. Google pays very close attention to its top developers, so a seal of approval from Mountain View is usually a great sign.
- Unfortunately, there’s no iOS or Kindle Fire app, because Amazon and Apple are being nit-picky about what’s open to developers. Those companies have locked down the user experience on the Kindle Fire and iOS devices and don’t want developers tinkering with the core components of the devices. Odds are, that could hurt them in the long run.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the interview:
BUSINESS INSIDER: First, can you give me a little bit about how it got started?
JOE BRAIDWOOD: As you know what happens with most startups, a couple people got together with an idea. That happened in the summer of 2008, a couple friends of mine from Cambridge got together, one of them had a Ph.D. in natural language processing. The other had a physics degree and was working in the UK government. He was getting bored with that. He wanted to try something a bit more entrepreneurial, and they were bashing around ideas. The first problem we looked at was typing on a small device—autocorrect and predictive text was sucking. They had this idea that you can analyse loads of data and get an understanding of how language works, and use that technology to solve one of the most simple everyday problems we’ve seen. We called ourselves TouchType then. I joined about a year in to start helping them. It was a research project at that stage.
BI: When did you guys start picking up steam?
JB: Toward the beginning of 2010 we were ready to try actually launching a product that would tackle this problem, and one of the things we realised about Android was that Android allowed you to create an application that would change the entire keyboard. We could inject all this intelligent language technology behind a new keyboard and package it as an app. We launched SwiftKey back then, that became the public presence for what we do. We got a load of downloads, got right up to the third-most downloaded app in the free marketplace that day, and 100,000 downloads in a week. For Android back then, that was pretty good.
A few months after that we launched the first application as a paid app, that was back when Android was a smaller platform, when monetization was more difficult. They’d only really launched paid app support that year, it was still early days. We worked with Google, and we launched as one of the featured developers. We’re the first people to have done a split keyboard for virtual touch screens, which was also soon done by quite a few other people.
We’ve hit the No. 1 app on Google Play about six or seven times. It’s hard to know exactly if we’re the No. 1 app in the world, but in the US and UK we were No. 1. We’re No. 1 in 10 countries. We also have a series of deals to provide this technology which is the core component of SwiftKey that powers language and more accurately corrects. We’ve partnered with some health care organisations to understand the language medical professions use, there’s a whole lot of other exciting industries. get the thought out of your hand and out of your mind into the device.
Photo: Business Insider / Matthew Lynley
BI: You guys have a close relationship with Google?JB: We have a very good relationship with Google, obviously we are one of their top developers and editors’ choice apps. We’ve been, pretty much almost two years solidly in the paid-app ecosystem, we’ve been a top seller. If we are not the best-selling app on their platform, then we’re close. We’re consistently in the top charts. They change the algorithm periodically, but we’ve been really up there and they recognise that, and we have a lot of advocates on the inside. We get a lot of face time with the folks in Mountain View and London and try and develop a platform to make it better for developers. We’re really glad that those guys are so receptive to it.
It’s a very important thing for us to be able to exist in their ecosystem. Without the Android ecosystem we wouldn’t have been able to do anywhere near as much. We’re not limited to that, of course, and we’re partnering with device makers that are putting it on other platforms to try and drive similar benefits. Before we realised Android would allow us this opportunity, we originally expected the business to exist in the shadow of device manufacturers. What we’ve done with Android is prove ourselves in the consumer marketplace, that’s become significant. We have way more than 1 million active users and an incredibly active community.
BI: So, why isn’t it on Apple devices?
JB: All you need to do is spend minutes on damnyouautocorrect.com to realise how flawed the iPhone’s technology can be, and how much heartache it can cause. We have a good enough archive to eternalize that. iPhone users, really, get in touch with us begging us to do something not realising it’s difficult for us. It goes back to that user-experience purism Apple has—anything that challenges the user experience for apps and opens it up to potentially causing problems, Apple has always been very against that.
I understand why they’ve done that, but I think the time is pretty ripe for them to liberate that and let others develop in that space. They have an approval system, they are entitled to deny any innovation anyone is trying to do if it causes problems. But we obviously have a proven track record and a really strong story, we put a lot of effort and time into producing a fantastic product for iOS.
“I think the time is pretty ripe for (Apple) to liberate that and let others develop in that space. They have an approval system, they are entitled to deny any innovation anyone is trying to do if it causes problems.”
I think that is something that should be possible, the alternative is they improve their core experience, they’re more than welcome to licence our technology. We haven’t obviously managed to achieve that yet, but as the core experience gets backed up, the ability and reasons behind wanting to change is lessened. People love choice, though, that’s why people love Android. That’s really helped that Android has come from relative obscurity to dominating the smartphone market.
Obviously with the iPhone 5 around the corner, anything is up for grabs. I think quite a few people are starting to get tired of iOS and starting to wonder what all the new big, shiny devices with bigger screens and much faster devices out there. We see ourselves as a core differentiation point of Android.
BI: What else do you think you can do with this kind of technology, beyond smartphone keyboards?
JB: We realised is that there was great potential for those technologies to be applied to solve problems. We just chose the text input on smartphones problem as the first market opportunity that we could properly get our claws into. It absolutely isn’t the only thing this technology is capable of helping with. We have grown from, when I joined at 5 people when it was very much a “who knows” kind of thing, now we’ve been growing steadily to bolster a whole series of different engineering teams. We have about 70 people now, have an office in South Korea, and I’m opening an office with the guys in San Francisco.
We’ve got great potential to turn our collective brains to alternative challenges. For example, in health care, lots of clinicians are using iPads to replace what was previously an extremely inefficient paper system. That worked really well at streamlining records, but where it still sucked was being able to make notes well. Touchscreen tablets are pretty horrible about making it easy to quickly type. What we were able to do with one of our clients is work with some of their data in one of their electronic medical systems and use that data to learn adaptively about what kind of language they’re using and predict the medical terminology. This has to be done with a good, solid eye because you don’t want to deviate the wrong ways. But it really boosted the productivity of these people, they were on average able to save about half of the time they would have originally spent trying to write notes on a set of galaxy tabs they deployed to their workforce and they made more notes about their patients than they would have.
There’s nothing stopping intelligent machine algorithms looking at large sources of often-used code.That’s another example of why this technology is extremely powerful, it’s why we feel we have a business that goes way beyond becoming a killer app.
BI: What are your thoughts on the Kindle Fire?
JB: Amazon made a decision to not allow users to switch keyboards on the Kindle Fire, which we think is a bad decision as it limits consumer choice, and means people can’t use SwiftKey. They locked in an ecosystem with that version of Android. I kind of understand the decision. They’re selling the Fires so cheap that it had to exist as a content consumption device. As a consequence, they made a similar decision to Apple and they wanted to lock down the user experience.
We’ve obviously sold through Amazon and had some extremely successful promotions before they were focused on the Fire. But because they made this decision to lock down the user experience, they limited the users of the Fire’s ability to switch keyboards. We’ve had lots of people ask us and we have to say it was a decision made on behalf of Amazon. The Fire is a great device, that kind of move has obviously inspired the launch of the Nexus 7. The Nexus 7 is obviously something we can sell through and we are very excited, it’s a pure Google device, it has the core Android experience.
BI: How’s it feel to be the top paid app in a market dominated by freemium apps?
JB: We think that where there’s a market, it’s good to exploit that market. The thing about freemium apps is that it’s kind of like a gateway drug. Any of these gamified applications, you want to get to the next level, and once you get to the next level you’re more enticed. That model works really effectively for the gaming community of developers. I guess the difference between productivity apps is that there’s not really a sense of different levels to approach. You’re either using it or you’re not.
“The paid app ecosystem on Google Play is stronger than it’s ever been.”
While there are certainly in-app things we could monetise, as a core experience I think it’s not such an obvious match for the freemium model. We have had the ability to sell since we’ve launched on Google Play and what we’re finding every year that passes more and more people are willing to part with their dollars to buy applications on Play. The survey we just conducted was very similar, how many paid apps do you guys have. A year ago a lot more users were paying for apps on iOS than Android. That delta is really closing, the paid app ecosystem on Google Play is stronger than it’s ever been. in that respect, as long as people are willing to focus on quality, there will always be a market for premium apps.