Not Even BlackBerry Can Save Hardware Keyboards

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If you’ve been using a smartphone for long enough, there’s a decent chance that you’ve crossed paths with a handset featuring a hardware QWERTY keyboard at one point or another. Especially back in the early days of tiny, resistive screens, when using a virtual on-screen keyboard meant tapping away with your stylus like a tiny icepick, hardware keyboards seemed like the luxurious alternative.

With the advent of larger, more sensitive screens and smarter keyboard software, QWERTY keyboards have had their fight cut out for them. Over the past several years it’s been getting harder and harder to find a decent model that still features one – some platforms, like Windows Phone 8, look they’ve given up on hardware keyboards entirely. BlackBerry has always been a bit of a safe haven for QWERTY fans, and with the launch of BlackBerry 10 and the forthcoming arrival of the Q10, you might think that QWERTY has a shot at making a resurgence. I wouldn’t bet on that, though, and I think that the Q10 is just going to be too little, too late, to really amount to anything resembling a QWERTY renaissance.

I really enjoy QWERTY smartphones; my first Android was the original Motorola Droid, and while keyboards have come a very long way since then, I still get a fair amount of use out of it. Like many QWERTY fans, it was a difficult transition for me over to full-touch models, and I still have issues with hitting the wrong keys thanks to my blunt fingertips. For me, at least, Swype-style virtual keyboards have made a tremendous improvement in both how quickly and accurately I’m able to enter text through a screen, such that I think I’m not sure I’d ever want to go back to a hardware keyboard.

Not everyone’s willing to move on like that; a friend of mine’s wife swears by her BlackBerry, an older Bold model, and though she’d like to give Android a shot, she just hasn’t found a QWERTY model she really likes. Frankly, I don’t blame her, because the selection is just short of awful. At least if you wanted a horizontal slider you had options for a while, and up until Motorola seemingly threw in the towel, its Droid models were decent choices. Since then we’ve seen the pretty darn nice Photon Q 4G, but the future’s still uncertain. For portrait-orientation form factors like she’s looking for, the story’s quite different, and while models like the LG Optimus Pro and Motorola XPRT have come along, they’ve been few and far between.

Perhaps more to the point, while there’s been the occasional Android handset with a hardware keyboard, the supply has really dried up over the past year or so, leaving interested consumers to choose between old, abandoned models unlikely to see any future system updates.

Enter: BlackBerry 10. After the Bold 9900 put in an extended showing as the company’s top-tier hardware keyboard holdover, we’re finally about to get a brand-new model, and one with some solid specs, to match; they may not scream like current-gen Androids, but the fact that the Q10 is going to be brand new and fully-supported should manage to answer a whole lot of prayers.

The problem is, while a lot of BlackBerry fans have waited for a phone like the Q10 to come along, it’s really taking its time getting here – I’m not talking the next couple months that users (especially those in the US) will have to wait, but the time that’s passed since the summer of 2011, when the 9900 debuted. That’s a lot of time for QWERTY fans to wait, and chances are that a good number of them have felt compelled to upgrade in the interim, possibly becoming full-touch devotees themselves.

Even for those who waited, I’m not sure the Q10, and BlackBerry 10 itself, have what it takes. Analysts are already dialing-back BB10 sales projections, and I fear that Q10 sales just aren’t going to be enough to get other manufacturers’ attention. That doesn’t mean that we won’t see future hardware QWERTY phones from BlackBerry, but I’m reconsidering the notion that these new BlackBerrys could be the shot in the arm that QWERTY needs.

That’s a shame, because even if it’s growing smaller day by day, there’s still a market for these kind of phones, if only someone would make them. When it comes to smartphones in general, I like having options, and I wish that at least some Android and Windows Phone OEM would rise to the challenge of being the one guy around who still has a decent QWERTY model available.

There is one thing that still gives me hope: Samsung and its success with the S Pen. Everyone had written-off the stylus as a relic of the past, yet it’s really seen a resurgence in this new niche market of Note devices. Maybe in a couple years, something similar could happen for hardware keyboards; the Galaxy Type, anyone?

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!