Home Opinion How BlackBerry Can Drive the Resurgence of the Physical Keyboard

How BlackBerry Can Drive the Resurgence of the Physical Keyboard

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These days, the term ‘smartphone” usually implies a full-touchscreen device with a virtual keyboard.  After all, almost all of the recent mid- and high-tier smartphones have no physical keyboards.  There is a reason for this of course.  And let’s face it. What most people want are smartphones with large screens on thin devices along with apps that they can use to entertain themselves or get things done.  Of course, nobody wants a phone that is inconveniently large, but generally the larger the screen the easier it is to create software that brings a superior experience.

But it is all set for all-touch?  Not quite.  The demand behind the BlackBerry Q10 has shown that there is still a solid market for that good ‘old BlackBerry with the front-facing keyboard. At the end of the day, the fundamental physical limitations of a solid sheet of glass to act as a traditional keyboard makes it unable to deliver the intricate feel and experience of mechanically functional keys. Smartphones with hidden, retractable keyboards don’t quite make for a thin device with a quality keyboard too, which is probably why you don’t see a BlackBerry 10 device with a sliding keyboard.  These days though, no matter how great the BlackBerry Q10 may be, it is working against a massively strong trend toward the larger screens.

The QWERTY market has steadily been taking a smaller and smaller slice of the smartphone pie.  Is the market forever doomed to swathes of slabs of glass, giving fewer and fewer options to those who stand by all that is QWERTY?  Maybe, just maybe, all is not lost. The fate of the physical keyboard smartphone may rest in BlackBerry’s hands.

BlackBerry, as we all know, is here today because of their iconic QWERTY keyboard smartphones.  It takes a brave soul to argue against the supremacy of BlackBerry in the QWERTY keyboard smartphone market.   On the other hand, the BlackBerry Z10 is a small fish in a big pond as it stands.  BlackBerry will very likely do decently well anyway with their all-touchscreen offering. Though against my strong advocation for the virtual keyboard, I believe that BlackBerry is in the best position to deliver the second coming of QWERTY with their hardware keyboard pedigree.

The trend towards larger smartphone screens is extremely strong and is largely independent of preference towards physical or virtual keyboards.  In fact, the proportion of smartphone users who prefer a physical keyboard remains very significant despite the migration towards touchscreen smartphones.  Compile all this information and you end up at the inevitable conclusion that QWERTY smartphones need larger screens.

With flagship smartphones like the Galaxy S4 and HTC One (and even ridiculously huge phones like the Galaxy Note 2) selling quite well, it just shows there is a market for larger smartphones. At only 3.1 inches diagonally, the BlackBerry Q10 is obviously in a different league.  But with the benefits of the physical keyboard, it is obviously not practical for the Q10 to match these other all-touchscreen smartphones in terms of screen size.  But there is definitely room for improvement!

Alas, I propose my vision for the BlackBerry Q11!

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Q11 copy

A 720x 960 portrait screen QWERTY device, designed to give that large screen experience with the same solid Q10 keyboard.  With an aspect ratio of 3:4, you’re able to cram more onto the display, which is great for browsing, BBM, email, Twitter, FaceBook, pictures, documents, and pretty much everything else that people do on smartphones.  Games should be easier to port onto the Q11.  User interfaces of apps will also be easier to tweak to work as well.  I firmly believe that this type of QWERTY device is the kind that will draw people back to QWERTY.  Many of those who are hesitant to switch from all-touch smartphones to QWERTY smartphones are worried about losing the big-screen experience.  In my opinion, there is no reason why so much screen real estate has to be sacrificed.  Why not make that decision easier and give them the best of both worlds?

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The Q10 has screen dimensions of approximately 2.2 by 2.2 inches.  The change would result in the Q11 having a screen size of 2.2 by 2.9 inches, a vertical increase of about 0.7 inches or 18mm. To put this in perspective, this is about the height of the bottom navigation bar on the Z10.  This increase in display height makes it easier to accommodate such a navigation bar.

Q11_3

Now, of course there can be some issues with the design.  Firstly, the balance of the phone is a potential issue. But considering how it will still be shorter than the Z10, and perhaps only 1 cm taller than the present Q10, I doubt it will be a problem at all.  Secondly, it will be difficult to cram the multitude of smartphone components inside such a frame.  The earpiece speaker, cameras, sensors, power button, and perhaps another microphone will have to be squeezed into a narrower top bezel.  While this could be an issue, it’s more of an excuse.  This is a potential problem that can be solved with the excellent engineering we know BlackBerry is capable of.   There even may be more drawbacks, but to be brutally honest, I doubt they will justify keeping a square display.  The advantages are simply huge cannot be realized without an increase in display height.  The Q10 may be “great” and “good enough” to some who prefer having a smaller form factor, but this larger screen can be integrated into the present Q10 with very little change to the size.  There is plenty of space on the front of Q10.  Even if it is technically difficult to do, BlackBerry should aim to accomplish it.

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With that taken into account.  If BlackBerry is to truly give a ‘no compromises’ experience, the Q-series cannot remain as is with a square display.  Going to a 3:4 aspect ratio will make for a better experience with apps, better content consumption, and perhaps even more room for an even larger battery.   The market has spoken, and it is about time to redefine the QWERTY experience into something better suited to the times we live in.  BlackBerry now has the chance to resurrect the QWERTY segment of the smartphone market with a hybrid device that can take full advantage of the BlackBerry 10 experience while delivering a solid physical keyboard.  I firmly believe that this type of device is one that can truly compete with other touchscreen smartphones while maintaining a fundamental advantage with a hardware keyboard. BlackBerry should not aim to create the best QWERTY smartphone, but the best smartphone.  Period.

Physicist by day and technology lover by night. I enjoy the finer things in life, like McDonalds burgers, Ford Focuses and riding the bus. I'm here to give you all the information and honest perspectives on everything BlackBerry!