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Scribble Nearly Anywhere. Sort of.

13th November 2020

I watched WWDC this year, and as with most years, didn’t really care about most of what I saw. The usual suspects made an appearance: required re-work that you won’t get paid for that only serve Apple’s purposes, a new look that nobody asked for that includes walking back decades of UI research and norms (many of which Apple themselves pioneered), and anti-features that make it harder to use things that you paid for in a way you see fit.

But there was one, possibly obscure, feature announced that I was immediately in love with: Scribble.

Scribble is iOS 14’s handwriting recognition feature. It’s not exactly new: it’s the welcome return of a beloved feature I lost when I parted ways with my MP2000 nearly twenty years ago. If Scribble in iOS 14 were only as good as the MP2000, I would be overjoyed to use it.

Scribble has been added to all native text fields. This means that you can Scribble in any text field that uses native components. If you have made a todo list application, and you used native widgets for this, your app is “automatically upgraded.” You don’t have to do any work. Your app on iOS 13 didn’t have handwriting recognition, your app on iOS 14 does. Apple did the work for you by improving the native text field widget.

This is the kind of user-positive “rising tide raises all ships” behaviour that I want to see from a platform vendor. It is Apple at its best, and it’s an unfortunately uncommon look for them these days.

I have had iOS 14 on my iPad Pro for a little while, and I’ve used Scribble a lot. I was surprised to find that the handwriting recognition isn’t actually better than it was on my Newton MessagePad. And it can’t seem to understand any of the Swedish words I write. But it’s still a welcome feature for when it does work, and I hope it will improve.

I had assumed based on this lovely implementation detail, that Scribble would be available in most of the text entry fields on my iPad: not just in the apps provided by Apple. I was disappointed to find that Scribble only works in about half of the places I expect it to. There are a lot more non-native text field widgets out there than I realised, and I think this is one of the major problems afflicting modern software development.

Text field widgets are something that computers have had since the dawn of graphical user interfaces in the 70s and 80s. They are a very simple, standard, widget element provided by pretty much every platform. You wouldn’t think there was a lot of room for improvement or innovation, but Apple found one in Scribble. Unfortunately, a bunch of other folks who haven’t found room for improvement or innovation decided to spend time making their own from scratch that behaves ever so slightly differently, and doesn’t benefit from the positive changes that Apple was able to provide.

If Scribble isn’t available basically everywhere then its utility is compromised. We can’t become proficient at using this feature, and have it improve our lives if it’s not nearly ubiquitous.

The old adage “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” comes to mind here. By making custom, from scratch text field widgets, something that wasn’t broken wasn’t fixed. But with the release of iOS 14 it was broken.

We talk a lot in the software industry about the pitfalls of re-inventing the wheel but the wheel is being re-invented constantly, everywhere. And it’s getting in the way of what little innovation we might find, and what small improvements there are left to make.