How and why Microsoft's SwiftKey acquisition affects Android

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Microsoft has acquired SwiftKey, developer of the popular keyboard app of the same name, for a reported US$250 million. It’s an unsurprising move: Microsoft has been snapping up productivity software for some time amid troubles with its mobile platform. But what else is behind this deal, and what does it mean for Android?

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SwiftKey. Neural is an experimental SwiftKey project still in Alpha. / © SwiftKey

SwiftKey is a free keyboard app operational in more than 100 languages, on a reported 300 million devices. It's one of the most popular apps of its kind on both Android and iOS, but why is Microsoft interested in it? 

Ian Fogg, senior director of mobile at research and advisory company IHS, told AndroidPIT: "Microsoft understands it has lost the smartphone OS war and now must focus its services on the devices people use: iPhone and Android".

In a bid to remain a part of the growing mobile world – which it already has a huge stake in, with many apps and software properties ready for mobile use – Microsoft has been picking up popular third-party apps and software. Most recent acquisitions include Wunderlist, which produces to-do list type software products, Calendar app Sunrise, and email app Acompli. SwiftKey is just the latest in a growing list.

The SwiftKey appeal

There is money to be made from SwiftKey from app installs, but it may not be Microsoft's direct motivation behind the purchase. SwiftKey is 'intelligent', it can learn from user behavior to make predictions, and this fits with Microsoft’s current business ethos.

Yes, Microsoft's intentions could simply be for SwiftKey to be made available – or be natively installed – on more devices, but it's also possible that SwiftKey is part of a greater plan to "to develop intelligent systems that can work more on the user's behalf and under their control," as Microsoft Executive Vice President of Technology and Research Harry Shum wrote in a blog post.

Microsoft apps are already available on Android and iOS. / © ANDROIDPIT

What does it mean for SwiftKey fans?

Microsoft could make changes and rebrand SwiftKey, but given the app’s current popularity, it will likely avoid this. Mr Fogg suggested that Microsoft would do well to keep the Swiftkey brand alive: consider the way Facebook has handled WhatsApp since it took over. 

However, Microsoft may attempt to target further licensing opportunities. On this subject, Mr Fogg said: “The most interesting part of [this deal] is what Microsoft chooses to do with SwiftKey's licensing business, where it offers its technology for others to embed it in their software and where it licenses branded versions of its keyboard to smartphone makers.”

In the meantime, SwiftKey may not change in any meaningful way.

Some wild ideas

Microsoft may also intend to use user data acquired from SwiftKey’s cloud-based software. We don’t know exactly what user data SwiftKey collects, or how it is stored, but if Microsoft gets a chance to access such a vast pile of information – to interpret unconscious user behavior data – it’s unlikely to would pass up the opportunity. We have reached out to SwiftKey regarding this matter and will update the story should we receive a response. 

Additionally, there is the possibility that Microsoft is aiming to reinvent its mobile system, and is seeking to acquire the best products will help it achieve this. Only time will tell.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Do you believe users really benefit from this move? Or is SwiftKey doomed now it's in Microsoft's hands? Give us your thoughts in the comments.

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  • psiclone Feb 5, 2016 Link to comment

    This is the kind of thing that would make me jump ship from a product I paid for to a different one or free one. I get tired of companies I hate buying up products/services from ones I love.

  • Zed Jones Feb 4, 2016 Link to comment

    Just like the old days of embrace, extend, extinguish, Microsoft can still win the mobile war even if they've lost the OS battle. It's a smart move that will help them subvert the entire platform.

  • Albin Foro Feb 4, 2016 Link to comment

    Microsoft has built a pretty good suite of apps for Android, but isn't getting the most from them because it doesn't have the OS and browser hooks into its major Windows revamp. (For whatever stupid reason, it is continuing the failure to develop a browser for anything but the latest version of its own OS that led to the decline of IE and is making a failure of Edge.)

    My guess is MS will not interfere much with how Swiftkey runs in general for most users but it will try, as it has with Skype, to make the app an extension of its Office and related productivity tools. Users of other MS apps on Android will be prompted to install and use Swiftkey which then will recognize MS and partner software and then add relevant features. Easy to imagine e.g. useful shortcuts, key layouts, or Cortana controls to make working with MS software on Android more seamless. (And of course, user snooping is a big part of the new Win 10 and a keyboard can do a lot for its big data aggregation - that's true of virtually all popular software on all consumer OSs.)

  •   18
    Deactivated Account Feb 4, 2016 Link to comment

    Yes, it is true that Microsoft has lost the battle in mobile's OS. May be it's Microsoft's strategy to purchase good & popular apps then consolidate them in their own OS or a brand new OS. Currently Microsoft is impatient just to regain it's hold again.

  • Francesco V. Feb 4, 2016 Link to comment

    "Microsoft could make changes and rebrand SwiftKey, but [...] it will likely avoid this"... and I really hope so!
    SwiftKey is the best for users who want multilingual input (you don't have to switch languages, 'cause the app 'understands' the change by itself). It also includes ridiculously good prediction, based on user's input history. Finally, with a large choice of themes, it integrates well in most of UI settings.
    If Skype has to teach us something, since it were acquired by Microsoft it didn't take the pace of other communication softwares and, most wrongly, they changed the UI in a (stupid) way that wanted to be nice but just result in a difficult user experience. I sincerely hope that Microsoft learned from its own mistakes and from the mistakes of the falling giant Yahoo, and will not only leave the SwiftKey brand alive, but also try not to stand in the way of their development team.

    • Scott Adam Gordon Feb 4, 2016 Link to comment

      Thanks for the comment! Yes you're right about the Skype experience. It will be interesting to see what Microsoft does this time.

      "you don't have to switch languages, 'cause the app 'understands' the change by itself" -- this is also something I love about SwiftKey.

  • storm Feb 4, 2016 Link to comment

    I've not found Swiftkey as exciting as many others have. The default google keyboard with gesture typing is quite good as it is.

    • Paolo Feb 4, 2016 Link to comment

      Yeah,... No. Google Keyboard is a TERRIBLE alternative to Swiftkey. It's happy with literally just the English language. All other languages and it's a horrible experience. No swipe, no intelligent autocorrection and prediction, no nothing. It sucks for non-English users.

      • storm Feb 5, 2016 Link to comment

        While I minored in German, I've not really spoken it in 30 years now. Haven't tried typing in it in even more. I do know that the voice input on Google Now gets confused with foreign food names and such.

      • Francesco V. Feb 5, 2016 Link to comment

        Well, there's more. For instance, if you ask Google to "play some music" in English, then it starts Play Music with a feeling lucky list. If you try asking the same but in another language, it just doesn't work (I tried both in French and in Italian) ... or maybe it exists a magic spell that I don't know.
        The essence of all this is that it's often useless to have great software if its potential is not fully deployed, and Microsoft is a champion in hiding great technology in useless UI or in unfinished services.

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