On your laptop, apps exist in a grid. You can drag a link, a contact, or some text from one app into another. On a smartphone, though, apps pile on top of each other as a stack: You can only deal with one at a time. That's why multitasking is one of the biggest UX problems on smartphones, but now Microsoft wants to solve it—not with new touch gestures or OS tricks, but with a simple software keyboard.
When we talk about multitasking on mobile devices, we're talking about more than whether or not your smartphone and tablet can run more than one app at a time. At this point, they all can. The really crucial part of multitasking is being able to easily use apps together, side by side. For example, dragging a link from your browser into an email to share it. We take this kind of multitasking for granted on desktops and laptops; tablets such as the iPad and the Microsoft Surface are pretty good at it, too. But there's no way to side-by-side multitask on a smartphone. The screen is just too small to run two apps next to each other.
Microsoft was an early pioneer at trying to tackle this on mobile. Its first tablet operating system, Windows 8, introduced the ability to run two apps side by side. The Windows maker's latest app, though, takes a stab at solving it on smaller screens, too. How? By integrating outside apps into the one app that runs side by side with every other app on your smartphone: the on-screen keyboard.
Developed by Microsoft Garage, Redmond's own answer to Google's "20% Time" initiative, the Hub Keyboard is a regular software keyboard with one major difference. Similar to the signature UI element that binds together Microsoft's Office Suite, Hub Keyboard has a ribbon at the top that allows you to easily bring in information from outside apps. There are four options—search and paste information from your clipboard history, search and paste from your contacts, find and paste an Office document from OneDrive, or automatically translate your text into another language. All can be done without leaving the app you're in.
It doesn't sound like much, but it's actually the next best thing to running apps side by side. For example, let's say you're writing an email, and you realize you want to share a Word document while you're writing it. Normally, you'd need to copy and paste the text you've already written, leave your email app, open OneDrive, find the Word document, share it with your email app, then paste the text of your letter back in. With Microsoft's keyboard, though, all you would do is tap the OneDrive button, enter your search term, and hit return to have the appropriate Word doc pasted right into what you're writing. Otherwise, it works the same as any other keyboard.
Microsoft is not the only software developer that is taking a ribbon approach to multitasking on small screens. On iOS, ReBoard is a multitasking keyboard that is arguably more fully featured than Hub Keyboard, pulling in apps such as Slack, Google Drive, Dropbox, eBay, and more. Unlike ReBoard, Microsoft seems to have stuck with its own apps and services for at least the first version of Hub Keyboard, which may not be useful if you don't use Microsoft products very much. (I don't.)
But given Microsoft's place in the pantheon of software giants, the fact that the company is experimenting with keyboard ribbons as a solution to a major mobile UX problem is a pretty big deal. It's possible that such a solution could come to a future version of Windows. Just as possible, though, is that it's a thought exercise and could lead nowhere. After all, Microsoft Garage is also the division of Redmond responsible for MyMoustache.net, a website that adds facial hair to your pictures, and Fetch, an iOS application that will tell you what breed of dog you look like.