Keyboard Worrier

When the iPhone first arrived, I didn’t get one. I wanted an iPod Touch instead, which was great for music, not so good for calls.

As amazing as it was at the time, the iPhone software was missing something, and it’s something that’s been bugging me ever since. Here’s the on-screen keyboard, as it appears now on my iPhone:

And here’s the landscape variant:

What’s wrong? Well, mainly the absence of beloved keys. Where’s my tab key? Where’s escape? Forward delete? The cursor keys?! Dare I even ask about Command, Option and Control?

Why cannot such buttons at least be put on the landscape mode view, instead of elongating the portrait layout like silly putty?

There is no getting around it: I often feel hamstrung having to use this simple keyboard.

Yes, I do understand the thinking that such keys would just clutter and confuse and that, with a touch-screen, they might also be superfluous.

Well, boo to that with knobs on!

  • Placing the typing caret down between the two letters I want is an exercise in frustration;
  • Tabbing now requires tapping – plus sometimes scrolling – different areas of the screen instead of one key;
  • As for dumbing down for the masses, why not supply two modes with a keyboard, the same as for a calculator: basic and advanced?

For the app developer wanting to reimplement what was lost, the documentation suggests that such missing buttons should be placed (awkwardly) in a row above the other keys. It’s a bit of a hack in my humble opinion, and can look pretty nasty.

So, one of the things I wanted to work on for my software library was a decent keyboard control. If I needed to fit extra keys to my keyboard in portrait mode, I’d clearly need some sort of zoom (I also do for the iPhone keyboard, as I’m always hitting the wrong key at the edges).

Here’s my SuperKeyboard, as it appears on my iPhone:

(the bezel shape was added afterwards by me, since it doesn’t appear in the screenshot!)

Coding your own keyboard has its small challenges, including:

  • dealing with the peculiar way iOS handles rotation (i.e. when it’s rotated landscape but the frame still thinks it’s in portrait mode);
  • the carriage-return key, which has to be drawn separately due to its odd shape;
  • dealing with bezels and safe areas (I would love to be able to access the shape of the screen programmatically; instead I am provided with four margin values).

My layouts are all very simple text files, which are then read into the SuperKeyboard, with the code working out the relative sizes for the keys depending on their types. As such it is now relatively trivial to modify any layout, or create a new one as desired.

Oh, and one last thing I wanted: a smiley keyboard with a spacebar, arrow keys etc.

Shifting does this:

That’s one more control down. 😉

Back to Apping, Part III

Now, where was I? Ah, yes: the software library. What’s wrong with the tools we’re given? Well, nothing, really… Well, actually…

I love Apple’s controls. In no time you can cobble something together that looks pretty cool… but, then, so can the next programmer. Worse, the next programmer probably has much more money and resources than you do. And even if they don’t, then there are a thousand more that do.

I need my work to stand out.

If I can create something cooler than the norm, then great. For instance, here’s an Apple slider.

Simple, elegant, does what it says on the tin. But here are my problems with it:

  1. My app might require sub-ticks as well as ticks;
  2. I cannot control a range of values; I’d need multiple sliders… = more scrolling;
  3. The blue is a system-set colour – and would probably look better as a horizontal gradient;
  4. If I have multiple sliders, and one is more important than the others, how can I make it stand out?

In summary, the standard control is too simple, and does not give me enough fine control. Which is absolutely fine for 95% of uses.

Now, here’s my control, in a basic configuration:

Apple’s bar has a subtle 3D-gradient fill; mine has a less subtle horizontal gradient. My drop shadow is also a little different.

Here’s my control again, with some more options added:

Sliders can also be vertical; I’m too lazy to screenshot that but tilt your head to one side and you’ll get the idea!

The coding of such a control (I imaginatively call it a PBGUI_Super_Slider!) does not take long. Maybe a week or two with my time limitations. But I felt I needed to do it to minimize scrolling (did I mention I hate scrolling?) while hopefully not making everything look too cluttered.

One thing that annoys me about Slider controls in general (I don’t think it’s just Apple who are guilty of doing this) is the property numberOfTickMarks. For a scale of 0 to 10 I have to think a beat about whether this should be set to 10 or 11. If I then change the min/max value I also have to change the number of tick marks again. I appreciate that this might seem like a trivial issue but when my tiny brain’s capacity is full, trivial problems lead to easy errors. So my “Super” Slider has an alternative property for setting the value interval. In the above example, I can simply set it to 1 and forget about it.

My Super Slider is not perfect. If I had more time I’d add an extra 3D gradient and some animation. If I had coded it this year not last I’d be using Metal for that little extra sparkle. But, for now, it’ll do for my purposes.

Anyway, that’s one control out of many. I might talk about some of the others next…

Back to Apping, Part II

When people find out (I try not to mention) that I’m a programmer, invariably they chirp in with, “Oh! I’ve got a great idea for an app! It’s a doozy!” And (unprompted) they go on to tell me how, for example,

  • it calculates sums of numbers (App already included with every phone), or
  • it makes amusing noises (Apps done to death), or
  • it uses the FBI facial-recognition database to spot disguised celebrities and/or escaped convicts in your local Lidl (App requires discreetly accessing the FBI facial-recognition database), or
  • it’s like Minecraft/Fortnite/GTA X but with way better graphics/gameplay.

And then they suggest I code that for them. “We can be partners!”

Well, “app ideas” was never the problem. I already have a list as long as my arm for app ideas. The problem is always Time. And lack thereof. Yesterday, I read through Apple’s app review guidelines, which is enough to make anyone’s eyes bleed. And that’s just reading it.

I need to introduce you to one of my laws. I call it “Philip’s First Law of Coding” because I’m Mr Vain. Here it is:

Coding will always take at least three times as long to do as you say it will, even (or especially) when you try to take into account Philip’s First Law of Coding.

Philip’s First Law of Coding, (c) PBG circa 2015

Star Trek’s Scotty knew just how long it would take to repair something, multiplied that time by a factor of four in his estimations and then everyone was mightily impressed when he managed it in a quarter of the time he said it would. Scotty’s a git! If I think something will take a month, I might decide to say that it’ll take three, and then it’ll actually take nine. Yes, it can be extraordinarily tricky to guesstimate how long even a simple project can take, especially when I am confined to two-to-three hours a day to work. There are all sorts of things which crop up:

  • unexpected and mysterious memory bugs that the debugger can’t handle;
  • new OSX/iOS/XCode (old code suddenly stops working, or works differently);
  • new code A requires recoding old code B, and then B affects C, D & E, which need adapting and testing, and then D dominoes into the rest of the Roman alphabet and threatens the Cyrillic;
  • hardware problems (failing hard disks is #1);
  • problems due to stupid initial decisions (mostly from severely underestimating complexities);
  • real-life emergencies, illnesses of all flavours, mood-swings and depressions, weather too hot or too cold, rain-patter too loud against the ceiling window, and so on.

This isn’t just a problem for coders. Please do take a moment to read up on the history of the upcoming Game of Thrones book, The Winds of Winter. In case you didn‘t just do that, here’s that link again. I did say please! I am pretty sure that Mr Martin is not a slacker and that he was being entirely honest with all of his completion estimations. Finishing even a simple project is tricky and takes times to do right. I know, because I’ve been spending many, many years writing my own software library, in order to code an app that will change the world.

More about that in Part III. 🙂