Why does Apple strip dictation from third-party keyboards in iOS 8?

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Why won't Apple let keyboards (like Fleksy, above)  access dictation? Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
Why won't Apple let third-party keyboards offer dictation? Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

If you’ve installed a third-party keyboard on your iPhone or iPad running iOS 8, you might have noticed a strange omission: While you can communicate in animated GIFs or Klingon, you can’t dictate into any keyboard not made by Apple.

Reddit user 11011 sums up the puzzling situation nicely: “I can’t get myself to stick to alternate keyboards because I use dictation way too much and switching keyboards is a hassle.”

That’s a shame, because the introduction of third-party keyboard support in iOS 8 means iPhone and iPad users can finally take advantage of a customization option widely enjoyed by those using Android devices.

Plenty of unusual add-on keyboards have quickly became available for iOS devices, from the wacky PopKey to the nerdy Klingon Keyboard. And less-whimsical keyboards like Fleksy, Swype and SwiftKey promise a more productive future for all of us, thanks to predictive text and other features for easier input.

Strangely, though, there’s no dictation key in any of these productivity enhancers.

SwiftKey’s Jennifer Kutz told Cult of Mac that Apple restricts its API to keep third-party keyboards from using iOS voice dictation.

“To have this feature,” she said, “we’d need to build our own voice-dictation functionality into the app, or Apple would have to offer an API.”

So why is Apple crippling third-party keyboards by limiting access to the popular dictation functionality?

Fleksy COO Ioannis Verdelis bemoans his company’s inability to provide access to dictation, or to Apple’s voice assistant Siri, from within its keyboard. He points out that third-party keyboards can’t access the iPhone’s microphone, which keeps Fleksy from offering its own dictation tool. He said he’s not sure why these features aren’t available.

“I believe that in an engineering project such as this,” he told Cult of Mac in an email, “you should get the same APIs the native keyboard does.”

Verdelis isn’t too concerned, though, noting that each new iOS version has made bug fixes for keyboard APIs.

“If you want evidence that the APIs are future-proof,” he said, “just look at all the GIF keyboards which are already thriving on iOS, and we haven’t even seen them on Android yet.”

The technology behind Siri and iOS’s dictation features comes from Nuance Communications, the makers of Dragon dictation software for Mac and PC. (The company also makes third-party iOS keyboard Swype).

When we asked if the missing dictation feature in the iOS 8 API was due to a licensing issue between Apple and Nuance, the company declined to comment. We also asked Apple for an explanation and are waiting for a reply.