The BlackBerry Q10 (at right) sacrifices the screen real estate of the Z10 (at left) for a physical keyboard.
When the iPhone first came out six years ago, it was widely derided for not having a physical keyboard, unlike then-dominant BlackBerry. A few years later, when Android smartphones first appeared, several sported physical keyboards as their key iPhone-killing feature.
Today, touch keyboards rule the smartphone world. Even among Android devices, the Motorola Droid 4 and Photon Q are the only real options left for physical keyboard lovers. So why is BlackBerry bothering with the Q10, a BlackBerry Bold-like device with a physical keyboard running the company's new, touch-oriented BlackBerry 10 operating system?
BlackBerry execs I've spoken with are confident that the demand for physical keyboards on smartphones is huge. You see, physical keyboard lovers have merely been lying in wait, pining to escape the touch-only world of mobile devices. Or so goes the story told by David Smith, BlackBerry's enterprise executive vice president. Smith not only believes that the Q10 will ride this wave of liberated keyboard lovers but that their passion will excite other folks perfectly happy with touch, thereby boosting adoption of the touch-only BlackBerry Z10, a good smartphone — the kind of upswell that BlackBerry needs to reverse its failing fortunes.
If wishes were fishes, no one would starve. But I suspect the BlackBerry dreamers will go hungry. The Q10 will definitely appeal to keyboard purists, but to no one else. I believe the number of people pining for the old-style physical keyboard is little larger than the number of people pining for typewriters — a few old-timers too rigid to adapt or too nostalgic to move forward.
An intuitive melding of touch and type
First, I need to be clear that BlackBerry didn't make a mistake I dreaded it might with the Q10. Having both a physical keyboard and a touchscreen can lead to an awkward switch between two dissimilar interfaces, as we saw in the BlackBerry Bold 9900 a year and a half ago.
The BlackBerry Q10 avoids that awkwardness. Yes, you need to use the touchscreen to confirm many options and tap buttons for what you enter on the physical keyboard, but BlackBerry has done a good job to limit the keyboard to text entry (there are no navigation controls, as the Bold 9900 had); its relationship to the touchscreen controls essentially is no different than that between an all-touch device's onscreen keyboard and the rest of the touchscreen's controls.
You can initiate some actions from the keyboard, which keyboard purists will like. For example, typing in the App screen will open the search bar, and apps and actions that match what you type will be displayed (type "tw" and the Twitter app and Post a Tweet action appear). It's similar to how Windows 8 lets you initiate actions via typing from the Start screen, and it works just like the BlackBerry Z10's Search feature.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.