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SwiftKey keyboard can jump between multiple languages. (SwiftKey Photo)

SwiftKey — the Microsoft-owned third-party mobile keyboard for iOS and Android — is out today with its biggest update in years.

Taking advantage of the trend of visual conversations that go beyond text — with use of emojis, GIFs and stickers one the rise — SwiftKey is adding new features and changing how users find and manage them.

This big update comes as one of SwiftKey’s key competitors is closing down. Last month, Nuance Communications discontinued Swype, a Seattle mobile keyboard startup it bought in 2011 for more than $102 million. At its peak, Swype was the default keyboard on millions of Android devices across the globe, creating an easier method for mobile phone users to concoct sentences on the go.

Chris Wolfe, principal product manager at SwiftKey. (SwiftKey Photo)

One of the biggest changes to SwiftKey as part of this update is the addition of a Toolbar to access frequently used feature that replaces the Hub feature, an expandable menu that is used for customizing and managing the keyboard. SwiftKey is also adding stickers and the ability to customize photos, stickers and other media and pin them to the Toolbar.

“It is a design update around ease of use and accessibility as we keep adding more and more rich features to the keyboard users need to be able to find them,” said Chris Wolfe, a principal product manager at SwiftKey, who came to the company from Microsoft after the tech giant acquired the startup for a reported $250 million in 2016.

These changes are available starting today. In the coming weeks, SwiftKey will add the ability to open up calendars within the keyboard as well share locations.

These new features, the company said, represent the biggest update since Microsoft acquired SwiftKey. The update does not include integration with Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana, though Wolfe says that is being considered.

As smartphones have evolved, moving the keyboard out of the physical world and on to the screen has opened the door to a variety of companies to build their own offerings. Google has its own in-house keyboard for Android phones, and a host of startups have built keyboards.

SwiftKey is an example of Microsoft’s new mobile strategy. The company pulled back from producing its own phones and operating systems, and has instead focused on optimizing its existing tools for iOS and Android and creating new smartphone apps that build on fundamental features like the camera and keyboard.

(SwiftKey Photo)

At the time of the purchase Microsoft said SwiftKey’s keyboard powered more than 300 million Android and iOS devices, giving the Redmond tech giant unique insights into the behavior of those users. The companies would not say how many people work for SwiftKey, nor how many users it has today.

Wolfe says SwiftKey’s biggest advantage is its artificial intelligence, which has advanced since getting to tap into Microsoft’s vast resources in that area. In a smartphone keyboard, AI comes into play by learning how users type over time.

“We have the ability to learn how you type as you use the keyboard on a day-to-day basis, and as we learn how you type, we can be better at predicting and correcting what you type,” Wolfe said.

And it’s not just text. SwiftKey also predicts emojis and stickers. The keyboard supports close to 200 languages and recognizes when a user is jumping between languages in a conversation. It won’t autocorrect something in Spanish back to English, for example.

Wolfe envisioned a future for SwiftKey where people having a conversation can plan a time and place to meet, all while not having to jump back and forth between messaging apps, calendars, maps and other things needed to make such a plan. In that way, it’s easy to see parallels to other Microsoft products. Many of the new additions to Microsoft programs and services emphasize being able to do everything in one place, most recently in the chat-based productivity tool Teams.

“Artificial intelligence can help you pull all this information together without ever leaving the keyboard, and as it simplifies the whole communication experience it allows people to go about their mobile lives,” Wolfe said.

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