It's no secret that a big part of Microsoft's current strategy is to deliver apps for platforms other than its own. The Microsoft Garage unit has been very active in this campaign, coming out with new iOS and Android apps nearly monthly. The latest is Hub Keyboard (available for iOS and Android—but not for Windows Phone!). It's a twist on mobile keyboards, designed to save you from having to switch apps while typing. To this end, the new iPhone app gives you access to clipboard data, email contacts, and cloud documents. I took the keyboard for a spin to see how it compares with Apple's stock keyboard, which has occasionally disappointed me. Unfortunately, Hub Keyboard disappointed me in even more ways.
Setup and Pricing
You get Hub Keyboard, as you'd expect, as a free download from the App Store, where it's a svelte 21MB download. For comparison, the SwiftKey keyboard app requires more than double that storage, at 56MB. Hub Keyboard also requires iOS 9.1 or later, so update that OS if you haven't already! I installed and tested the app on my iPhone 6s.
On first run, the app asks for access to your contacts. That's a good thing, since it means the keyboard has at its disposal all of your contacts, not just your Office 365 or Outlook contacts. A four-panel slideshow gives you an idea what the keyboard app can do. Its abilities include providing access to all your Office documents and contacts, showing a list of recently used docs and contacts, and letting you search for the same. The iOS version of the keyboard is missing two capabilities of the Android app—the ability to translate what you're writing and to search and share news stories found via Bing.
As with any third-party keyboard, Hub Keyboard requires more steps than just the basic app installation. To get it to work, you'll need to go to Settings, tap Add New Keyboard, select Hub Keyboard, and allow it full access to the operating system. A big red button takes you right to the setting, helpfully saving you from digging through menu options.
Note that turning on Allow Full Access in the Keyboards section of Settings does enable the developer to see anything you type, so if you think Microsoft is a snoopy, untrustworthy entity, don't enable it. You might consider, however, that the company recently surprised a lot of people by acting as a champion of privacy.
You can switch to Hub Keyboard from any app's keyboard view by tapping the globe icon. If you want to use only this new keyboard, in every app, you need to remove the standard (English, in my case) keyboard. Otherwise you constantly see different keyboards in different apps and have to switch to the one you want. Don't worry; you can always re-enable system keyboards later on.
First, I need to air my biggest disappointment with the Hub Keyboard: It doesn't include swiping input for text the way SwiftKey and Windows 10 Mobile's built-in keyboards do. Once you get used to entering text that way, it's irksome to go back to the tap-tap-tap iPhone-style keyboard. Happily, Microsoft has said that the excellent Word Flow keyboard is in testing for iOS release. Another thing you lose with this app compared with the default keyboard is the microphone for speech-to-text input, which is something I use quite a bit. But the same holds true for other third-party keyboards.
Now to what Hub Keyboard can do.
The keyboard uses a pleasing sans serif font and the keys are a little larger than the iPhone default's. Like the latter, it proposes text predictions above the keyboard, but to the right of those is a grid menu option that offers access to Office 365 info. But there was a big design problem for me when I tried to sign into my account. The keyboard covered the login screen, so I couldn't sign in unless I switched away from the app and quickly hit the Continue button after switching back. This led to a standard Microsoft account sign-in page.
When you type anything into a text box, the keyboard adds the ability to search that same text for contact names or Office documents. This seems like it should boost productivity, and I successfully used it to insert a document link into an email, but a minor inconvenience was that it didn't put a space between my text and the link. Hitting an equal-sign button helpfully lets you hide the keyboard to show the full document or contact list. In one case, the contact's name wasn't pasted, only the phone number, even though I'd selected the name. And it only inserts text, not a VCF contact card the way you can from iOS's Contacts app.
The AA button shows you the last text you copied and lets you easily enter it into the current text field you're typing in. It's a minor convenience, though, since iOS makes it pretty easy to paste text anywhere with a press-and-hold action.
The period shortcut works the same as it does on the standard iOS keyboard: It drops down a contact list in an email To: field. But on the Hub Keyboard, the period key isn't on the main alphabet screen, so it's actually less convenient. Also, the Microsoft keyboard is a tad slower to pop up than the stock one, a common complaint for third-party iPhone keyboards. Nor is its text prediction as good as the iOS default keyboard's: When I typed "theres," the latter suggested "there's" while the former didn't, for example. With Microsoft's touted machine learning (which is leveraged by its Cortana digital assistant), the prediction should improve over time as people use the keyboard. But the fact that it doesn't correct an obvious mistake like "theres" tells me it's got a lot of ground to make up.
The Hub Keyboard's focus on Office 365 and OneDrive may not be of interest to a lot of consumers, but according to a study by Otka (a mobility management service provider), Office 365 was the most popular cloud application among businesses in the second half of 2015, followed by Salesforce, Box, and Google Apps. And these days, anyone with a Windows 10 PC probably also has a OneDrive account, whether they know it or not. Note, however, that the Hub Keyboard doesn't actually insert the document into an email—rather it inserts a Web link to the file online. By contrast, the excellent Outlook for iOS mail app lets you attach actual Office files.
Only for Passionate Office 365 Users
If you're a heavy Office 365 or SharePoint customer who uses an Android smartphone or an iPhone, you may benefit by installing this Hub Keyboard. The lack of swipe-style text entry like that on Window 10 Mobile's keyboard will be a deal breaker for replacement-keyboard enthusiasts, however. That and other shortcomings mentioned above make it hard to recommended for most iPhone users. The app's developers seem keen on feedback to improve it, however, so we can hope for a future update that addresses its shortcomings. In the meantime, check out the PCMag's top-rated iPhone keyboard, SwiftKey, though we haven't awarded an Editors' Choice in the category, as none of the products is without caveats.