Gboard

Rajan Patel, lead engineer for Google’s new iOS keyboard:

Say you’re texting with a friend about tomorrow’s lunch plans. They ask you for the address. Until now it’s worked like this: You leave your texting app. Open Search. Find the restaurant. Copy the address. Switch back to your texts. Paste the address into a message. And finally, hit send.

Searching and sending stuff on your phone shouldn’t be that difficult. With Gboard, you can search and send all kinds of things — restaurant info, flight times, news articles — right from your keyboard. Anything you’d search on Google, you can search with Gboard. Results appear as cards with the key information front and center, such as the phone number, ratings and hours. With one tap, you can send it to your friend and you keep the conversation going.

My first thought, of course, was “Sounds like a privacy disaster — Google will see and log everything people type with this keyboard.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. During setup, Gboard displays this simple privacy statement, regarding its need for you to grant it “full access”, including networking:

This lets you use Google Search in your keyboard. Your searches are sent to Google, but nothing else you type is.

Here’s what Google says in the app’s description in the App Store:

Privacy

We know the things you type on your phone are personal, so we’ve designed Gboard to keep your private information private.

What Gboard sends to Google:

  • When you do a search, Gboard sends your query to Google’s web servers so Google can process your query and send you search results.
  • Gboard also sends anonymous statistics to Google to help us diagnose problems when the app crashes and to let us know which features are used most often.

What Gboard doesn’t send to Google:

  • Everything else. Gboard will remember words you type to help you with spelling or to predict searches you might be interested in, but this data is stored only on your device. This data is not accessible by Google or by any apps other than Gboard.

This privacy policy could change in the future, of course. Deals can be altered, and Google’s history of deliberately circumventing iOS privacy features is well-documented. But right now, it looks like Gboard is actually private. In fact, so far as I can tell, not only are you not required to sign into a Google account to use it — there is no way to sign in to a Google account even if you wanted to. Queries sent through Gboard don’t show up in my Google search history, even when I’m signed into my Google account in other Google iOS apps. Only what you type in Gboard’s search input field gets sent to Google, and even that is always sent anonymously.

Whether this is Google’s own magnanimous decision, a technical limitation in iOS, or a policy decision enforced by App Store review, I don’t know.

Other notes:

  • Gboard is iOS-only for now, but Android users seem to want it.

  • Design-wise Gboard is a little weird. All of Google’s recent iOS apps use Google’s Material Design visual language, including the Roboto font. Their iOS apps look and work a lot more like Android apps than iOS apps. Gboard, however, was visually designed to mimic the standard iOS keyboard very closely. Gboard sports slightly different colors and changes a few key placements,1 but is clearly designed to look like the familiar system keyboard — I’ll bet many users will think Gboard is only adding a search bar above the system keyboard. (Third-party keyboards in iOS can’t merely modify the system keyboard — they must reimplement just about everything from scratch.2)

    But Gboard uses Roboto instead of SF. The differences between Roboto and San Francisco are sometimes subtle, but to my eyes it just makes it look out of place on iOS 9. Also, they chose too thin a weight of Roboto — I can barely see the period on their “.” key. I think the whole Material Design thing feels terribly out of place on iOS. I’m glad they didn’t do it with Gboard, but they should have gone the whole way and used San Francisco for the typeface, too.

  • Gboard has some interesting emoji features. First, rather than make you switch to a different keyboard, it has its own dedicated emoji layout built in, including search. Mac OS’s “Emoji and Symbols” picker has long allowed for search; it’s long struck me as a little curious that iOS’s standard emoji keyboard does not. Second, Gboard’s predictive text feature will suggest emoji in addition to actual words. Type “dinner” and the first predictive suggestion is “🍴”; type “basketball” and you get “🏀”. That’s clever.

  • Update: Federico Viticci: “There must be people at Google who really don’t get the iPad. Gboard is very good on the iPhone; the layout is atrocious on the iPad Pro.” I didn’t even think to try it on an iPad — for some reason I’ve got it in my head that third-party keyboards are an iPhone-only thing on iOS.

  • Update 2: Rajan Patel, on Twitter, regarding this article:

    @daringfireball It was our magnanimous decision, we should go all the way w/ design, and we will polish iPad.

  • Update 3: Another cool feature. You know how you can move the insertion point by 3D pressing on the iPhone 6S keyboard? Gboard lets you move the insertion point by sliding across the space bar.


  1. Example: Gboard uses a smaller return key with the “⏎” glyph as a label; iOS uses a bigger key labeled “Return” — but they’re both in the same location, the lower-right corner. Gboard uses the extra space created by its smaller Return key to add a “.” key to the alphabetic keyboard; press and hold on it and you get shortcuts for a bunch of common punctuation characters. ↩︎

  2. Apple does provide an API to play the standard keyboard click sound, for example. But what developers can’t do is just say “Display the standard keyboard and add this new toolbar above it.“ ↩︎︎

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