Why the BlackBerry Venice might just be my next phone
It started well before we reviewed the Moto X Pure Edition. Upon learning that I’d be the one covering that device for Pocketnow, people began asking me almost constantly on Twitter and in the comments whether I’d be getting a Pure Edition of my own. After all, I’d owned the last two generations of Moto X; it made sense to assume that I’d treat myself to the newer, upgraded model once the time came around for my yearly upgrade. And for a while, I seriously considered it.
And then that crazy BlackBerry Venice hands on video hit the feeds, and nothing in my world made sense anymore.
For the record, I’m still officially on the fence concerning my next smartphone, and I’m still strongly against anyone making their own buying decisions based on the phone that fits me best. Just like everyone else, I buy phones for just as many stupid reasons as smart ones. But I’m sorely, sorely tempted to drop serious coin on the BlackBerry Venice whenever it ends up hitting shelves. Here’s four reasons why; whether they’re stupid or smart will be up to you to decide.
That Keyboard …
Standing in for the Venice in the photo above is the BlackBerry Classic we reviewed a while back, because 1) I refuse to subject you to blurry 480p framegrabs for the duration of this piece, and 2) it looks to be much the same layout as the BlackBerry Venice keyboard.
If there’s one thing BlackBerry knows, it’s physical keyboards. The Classic pictured above was my sidekick for half of CES 2015, and I loved taking notes on its fretted thumbboard during press briefings. Every so often I’ll fire up Facebook Messenger on the Classic or one of its siblings just so I can clack away on those deliciously tactile buttons. This is not a fondness shared by everyone; as I learned on today’s episode of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, people born after a certain year have neither memory of nor affection for physical QWERTY keyboards. But my first smartphone was a BlackBerry 7520. I used to get sore thumbs authoring insufferably self-indulgent LiveJournal posts on those spring-loaded keys, which I eventually learned to operate by feel alone. Nostalgia may be a terrible reason to buy a smartphone, but I can’t deny that it’s a powerful factor here.
… Is Smart
But one of the great things about BlackBerry is that it knows that sentimentality isn’t a business strategy, so it doesn’t rest (entirely) on old glories. It’s not just throwing a best-in-class physical keyboard on a handheld and calling it a day; it’s taking advantage of the fact that everyone else has abandoned the physical QWERTY space to innovate within that space.
The BlackBerry Passport is a great example, because I hate it. I hate its awkward form factor and its weirdo aspect ratio and its awkward key layout that flies in the face of everything the old Research in Motion stood for. But I love using that keyboard … because it’s not just a keyboard. It’s a touch pad which you can use to scroll webpages, message lists, or menus. It’s a surrogate mouse, similar to Samsung’s Air View feature but smarter in a way, because it doesn’t require you to cover up the display with a finger or a stylus to use it. You just glide your thumb over the keys and your motion is translated into on-screen action. And that’s awesome.
BlackBerry Makes Really Smart Software
Slowly but surely, third-party interfaces (or “Android skins”) are going the way of the space shuttle. This is a good thing. We’ve discussed more than a few times how third-party UIs often make Android phones worse. But in calling so vigorously for a world of stock Android handsets, we’ve created something of a monster: a slowly homogenizing software landscape. And while Google’s OS does a lot of things well, there are some things BlackBerry 10 does better.
Take notifications. Since covering the company’s relaunch two years ago, I’ve maintained that BlackBerry’s approach to message management is the absolute best. Literally every notification you receive is aggregated within the BlackBerry Hub in descending order, emails commingling with Twitter mentions, Facebook Likes, SMS messages and missed calls in one unified list, ordered by time received. If that sounds too chaotic, the Hub offers tabs to break the list down into smaller categories – and if it’s the end of the day on Friday and you want to declare Inbox Zero whether you’ve actually earned it or not, boom: Mark Prior as Read and you’re set. Best of all: the Venice doesn’t seem to require you to reach all the way to the top of its massive display to get to the Hub. Instead, there’s a shortcut in a much more convenient place, alongside the Google Now bubble in the home key menu below.
On the other side of that drag-up shortcut slider sits something called “BlackBerry Device Search,” and if it’s anything like the company’s current Universal Search, it only bolsters the case for a physical keyboard. In its present form on BlackBerry 10, Universal Search works with the BlackBerry Assistant so you can just start typing to initiate a search – of everything. Type a person’s name and the phone will display contacts matching it; type “Dunkin Donuts” and the phone will show you nearby coffee shops; type in “how do I put out a chemical fire” and you’ll get directed to matching Bing results in the browser (whether you want to trust Bing with a situation like that is another question).
While most Android phones offer similar functionality using the Google search bar on the home screen, the interaction isn’t as smooth as what you get on BlackBerry: you need to tap on the bar, wait for the virtual keyboard to appear, and then (with few exceptions) type your entire query before hitting submit. With Universal Search you just start typing and results start appearing instantly. The more you type, the better your results.
I’m so bored
Look, I love my job. For all its downsides, the mobile space is still the sexiest corner of technology for a kid like me, who grew up hoping that all those far-fetched pocket gadgets might one day materialize. But there’s a reason bloggers get burned out covering mobile, and there’s a reason so many mobile-only publications expand to include other beats: it’s that pile of phones up there. For all the pretty colors and all the genuinely cool features contained in that heap, it’s still a heap of similarly sized rectangles, most of them offering fairly minor variations on the same handful of features. Even someone who loves this stuff has to admit that it gets monotonous. That’s why I love it when companies start thinking outside the (ever-slimming) box. It’s why I love projects like the Runcible; it’s why I still chase down flip phones at trade shows; it’s why we spent so much time and effort putting together a throwback for one of the least-successful phones of all time. For me, this industry has always been at its most fun when people were thinking a little crazy.
The Venice is a vertically-sliding handset with a physical QWERTY keyboard and an Android software skin created by BlackBerry. It’s the craziest thinking I’ve seen all year, once so improbable-sounding that it better resembled a fanboy’s fever dream than anything that could possibly come to market. But by all accounts, it is indeed coming to market. Whether it will catapult its maker back into prominence or even back into relevance, I don’t know. All I know is that I’m probably buying one.