Command-Tab on your iPad

Update: It’s now been well over a year, so I filed rdar://14367569 proposing this for inclusion in iOS7.

A few days ago, frustrated out of my wits regarding the usual way of interacting with an iPad while using a Bluetooth keyboard (an odd mix of free-range typing interrupted by clumsy fumbling at the screen to switch apps or tap something), I noticed that there were a few third-party keyboards sporting Home and Spotlight keys.

Dumbfoundingly, using a standard Apple Wireless Keyboard offers no ready way to perform any task-switching action whatsoever (no, not even a home key analog, which is sorely needed). But Logitech and others had obviously figured out how to do it - so I thought there must be a better way, and set out to discover it.

I started out by pestering anyone I knew who might have an insight into hardware accessories, including some folk relatively close to Apple, and eventually got some results from accessibility folk (I have more than a passing interest in assistive tech).

I never did find exactly how third-party keyboards do it (I have to assume they are generating specific keycodes that are not part of the Apple Wireless Keyboard set), but as it turns out you can, with a little practice, use your iPad solely via an external keyboard, task switching and all - through the iOS accessibility features, which are second to none.

The original piece I linked to covers all the basics, but here’s a quick summary: You switch on VoiceOver (preferably setting the triple-home shortcut to toggle it, since you’ll be needing it a lot more), and besides the rotor gestures (with which you’re advised to familiarize yourself with), you get a few interesting key combinations:

  • Ctrl+Alt+S silences VoiceOver
  • Ctrl+Alt+H equates to a Home button press (do it twice to show the task bar, add a little pause to go to Spotlight)
  • Ctrl+Alt+I pops up the Item Chooser, which allows you to pick just about any accessible element on the screen and jump to it - try it on your home screen to get a nice list of folders and apps
  • Left+Right to go into quick navigation mode and go over all the accessible UI elements
  • Up+Down to “press” a UI element
  • Alt+Arrow Keys to scroll a screenful at a time (in an app, sideways on the home screen, etc.)

The absolutely killer key combos for me, however, are the ones I found out entirely by accident. As far as I know, these aren’t documented anywhere - not even in Apple’s iPad manual, which has a very extensive accessibility section that lists a number of other shortcuts.

These are the ones I’ve figured out so far (there might be more):

  • Cmd-Shift-Tab switches “right” to the previous app, just like a four-finger swipe (think of it as a way to move back through the task switcher)
  • Cmd-Tab switches back “left” to the app you were originally in (the screen will bounce a little when you’re already on the “latest” app)
  • Left+Right followed by Option-Left/Right to page through your dock (if you go all the way left, you’ll get to the volume, playback and brightness controls)

And, of course, Esc does the obvious things like closing the dock or the app folder you’re in.

There are a few oddities, though. Given the modal approach of VoiceOver, performing “normal” cursor movements or text selections becomes less immediate and somewhat awkward because you’ll have to toggle in and out of quick navigation via a cursor key chord, but, like all things, it’s a trade-off.

But just like the multitasking gestures, these key combinations have the potential to radically change the way you use your iPad, and I wish many of these (most notably the app switching and home button keys) were available by default - it’s not rocket science to do so, and it would make the iPad a lot more appealing to power users.

Full-keyboard navigation is an entirely different beast. You’ll either love it or hate it (if only because of the permanent black focus rectangle that highlights the active UI element), but using it for a while makes you a lot more appreciative of the effort Apple puts in where accessibility is concerned.

Using my favorite apps is a little uneven, but also a good yardstick for their overall usability - for instance, I can navigate the entirety of Flipboard with amazing ease, but, alas, I can’t seem to be able to use Reeder properly solely via the keyboard (the experience breaks down almost immediately since I can’t dive into stacks of articles, which means that those UI components either aren’t written with accessibility in mind or that they’re not completely wired up).

Obviously, all the Apple standard apps work fine (sometimes with delightful little twists that you can only appreciate with VoiceOver’s speech on), and just about anything else that uses standard controls fares about as well.

But, again, the ability to simply task switch to and fro at the press of a couple of keys just like on a Mac makes an astounding difference2, and Apple should capitalize on that - especially now that Surface is touting their fancy keyboard covers.

I’d be tickled pink to simply have one of the function keys mapped to the home button1, but making some of these key bindings available to all external keyboards seems like very low hanging fruit (simply enabling them as part of multitasking gestures springs to mind), and they’d go just beautifully with iOS 6.

One can hope, right?


  1. F4 would be the most logical, since it’s mapped to Launchpad and even has an appropriate icon… (or the Dashboard symbol if, like me, you have an older keyboard). 

  2. Obviously, and even without judging by the traffic this post is getting, I’m not the only one who believes this would be truly excellent. In fact, Stu Maschwitz did a very neat concept movie last January that illustrates how seamlessly it could work, and adds a few little notes on other things that would be tremendously useful, like arrow support in suggestion lists and whatnot. Interestingly, he also uses an Incase Origami Stand, like I do these days.