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Why Does Apple Inc. Fear iPhone Customization?


You can always tell when someone is using an iPhone. And that's the whole point.

The other night, my wife and I were at a bar and both on our respective smartphones -- she on her iPhone (NASDAQ:AAPL) and I on my Android (NASDAQ:GOOG). I, being the far more awkward and self-conscious one, was holding my device below the bar with one hand so as not to appear like we were a couple who would spend an entire evening staring into glowing screens rather than each other's faces, albeit momentarily for a quick email.

But as we composed our messages, I noticed the way we were sitting. My wife had both elbows on the bar and used her thumbs to type in her message. Meanwhile, I was holding my phone with one hand near my leg and using my thumb to swipe the email into my phone. And I realized our body language was all due to the different keyboards we were using.

Since the very first model, iPhone users have been locked into Apple's default keyboard, unable to switch to or install a third-party input method. However, Android, since it allows for a multitude of customization options, has a wealth of various third-party keyboards and input methods -- ranging from the tried and true, like Swype and Swiftkey, to the outright bizarre, like the learning curve-heavy 8pen.

Although Apple isn't alone in its steadfast devotion to a default keyboard -- BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) and Windows (NASDAQ:MSFT) also don't permit users to switch either -- it's extremely unfortunate that Cupertino hasn't allowed for different keyboards at any point in its mobile lines' lifespan. Personally, after using a swipe-to-compose method on Swype, Swiftkey, and Google's default keyboards, I can't imagine ever going back to a tap-type interface for any mobile device in the future. To me, the speed, ease, and functionality of Swype is so far beyond a simple keyboard that I invariably make a face every time I have to compose a message on my wife's iPhone.

But why has Apple kept users locked into its stale keyboard and, by extension, denied iPhone owners the customization to change the overall look of their iPhones beyond wallpaper and icon arrangement?

The Guardian's Charles Arthur recently spoke with Swiftkey's chief marketing officer Joe Braidwood about Apple's refusal to switch up the keyboards on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.

"We were disappointed that Apple didn't liberalize its mobile OS to allow third parties to innovate the typing experience," Braidwood said, referring to the dashed hopes of Cupertino's big unveiling of iOS 7 last month. "We're strong believers that improving the text input experience is one of the real areas for improvement in iOS, and some of the tweaks that have happened to the autocorrection engine in iOS 7 only act to underline that assertion."

Arthur suggests that a major reason why Apple hasn't opened itself up to third-party keyboards is the company's paranoia that it would usher a flood of data-stealing keyloggers into the mobile marketplace. This, despite the fact that Swype and Swiftkey have never been accused of stealing data and that every piece of software that comes across Apple's App Store is so heavily vetted that it's nearly impossible to slip malware past the mighty banhammer. Besides, as long as Apple denies app installation outside of the App Store, there isn't much to worry about.

But Braidwood's theory on Apple's fear of customization touches upon something much larger.

"The real point that we've heard here relates to wanting to protect the user's experience." he said. "This would seem to be framed around wanting to avoid confusion and inconsistency rather than the risk of malware."

While I wholeheartedly agree with Braidwood's assessment, I think it has to do with one much more than the other.

Installing and switching to a different keyboard is hardly confusing. Swype and Swiftkey installs number in the tens of millions. In fact, the latest version of Google's default keyboard comes with a swiping input method built in and allows users to toggle the feature on and off. So if Google allows a souped-up version of its default keyboard, one that's quickly and easily changeable with a checkbox in a settings panel, why doesn't Apple?

It has a whole lot to do with consistency.

Take a passing glance at a crowd of people on their smartphones and it's easy to tell which ones are using iPhones. Aside from the largely unchanging hardware, the iPhone interface extends beyond just the native Apple apps and into nearly all third-party software, making it instantly recognizable. Although you might have difficulty telling the difference between an iPhone and Android user playing Angry Birds at 20 paces, if either of them are in the middle of an email, it's pretty apparent.

Comparatively, Android devices are a lot of things, but consistent isn't one of them. Hardware comes in all shapes and sizes, and the UI has noticeable differences between each stock Android version -- and that's not even getting into the manufacturer skins, widgets, third-party app launchers, and ROMs that throw everything into new and wholly unrecognizable territories.

That's a far cry from the familiar look of an iPhone -- pre-iOS 7, at least.

One could argue that it's all in the name of support and security, but really, it's all about brand identity. With the amount of customization an Android user can apply to his or her device, after a while it ceases to be a Google phone. It becomes that person's phone.

And considering the company's "walled garden" philosophy, Apple doesn't want people to have their own phone. Apple wants people to have its phone.

Cupertino is notoriously nitpicky when it comes to default software. Sure, Google apps can readily be installed and often surpass Apple's native offerings in terms of quality and functionality, but its native software will always be the automatic go-to app when clicking on a hyperlink or composing an email. Homescreen widgets are still forbidden, and don't even think about app launchers or custom ROMs. Unfortunately, it's that stubborn loyalty to the "Apple experience" that conflicts with customization and doesn't leave iPhone users with a whole lot of choice.

And ultimately, the iPhone's consistency plays a large role in that aforementioned crowd metaphor. You can always tell when a stranger is using an iPhone. It's always recognizable and fully lends itself to brand identity. However, given the amount of customization, it's more difficult to pick out an Android user from a crowd.

All you can tell is that they're not using an iPhone.

Also see:

If Apple iWatch Sounds Like a Gold Mine, Think Again

7 Smartwatch Models to Try Before Apple's iWatch Arrives

Spy Revelations Are Good and Bad News for Business

Disclosure: Minyanville Studios, a division of Minyanville Media, has a business relationship with BlackBerry.
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