BlackBerry is in trouble and its best solution so far is decidedly low-tech. In an interview with Re/Code this week, BlackBerry CEO John Chen said that the struggling smartphone company’s plan to turn things around is centered on what made them popular in the first place: hardware keyboards.
Chen says the main market for BlackBerry, at least in places like the U.S., is as a tool for businesses, particularly those in heavily regulated markets such as the financial industry. BlackBerry isn’t going to win by competing for the latest games and apps, but instead needs to focus on being the best at getting work done.
BlackBerry is so defensive of keyboards, in fact, that when the Ryan Seacrest-backed iPhone keyboard Typo was made public, BlackBerry sued almost immediately. But does anyone actually want hardware keyboards anymore? Sure, touchscreens are great—but did we lose something valuable when we all collectively ditched our 'Berries?
Over at GigaOm, writer Rani Molla spoke to T-Mobile’s senior user experience manager, David Winkler, who believes the reason people want hardware keyboards is merely because they’ve just been around longer:
He refers to research he and his team have conducted at T-Mobile when deciding which keyboards the provider should use. After having people who use physical keyboards try out a series of touchscreen keyboards, many said they would convert; they just hadn’t realized how easy it would be. "A lot of it just helps that they were forced to try [touchscreen keyboards]," he said. "They wouldn’t have done it on their own."
The Verge’s Sean Hollister suggests that the decline of physical keyboards is a forced one, brought about by manufacturers’ desire to have marquee handsets with trim figures and bold screens:
For the past several years, buying a smartphone with a QWERTY keyboard has meant settling for less than the latest and greatest technology on the market. When my Droid 4 launched in February 2012, it had already been completely outspecced [sic] and outclassed by devices with better screens. Arguably, there hasn't been a top-tier smartphone with a physical keyboard since the Samsung Epic 4G set a new high bar for Android devices in August, 2010.
So perhaps BlackBerry’s brass isn’t so crazy. Coupled with a razor-sharp focus on their original core demographic of business users, the company doesn’t seem to care about being all that sexy anymore. They're going for usability, and perhaps, after all, physical keys have utility. But as feature-rich iOS and Android smartphones begin to crowd out BlackBerry in the enterprise space, seeming outmoded may be just as deleterious as actually producing an anachronistic product.