The keyboard-packing BlackBerry Q10 won't be available until May or June of this year. That's a hard truth for a company that was renowned for its hardware QWERTYs, and a harder truth in light of the precarious situation in which BlackBerry — née RIM — finds itself. It needs a hit, and it needs one badly. The company may wax poetic about sales for the fullscreen capacitive Z10, which has already gone live in Canada and the U.K., but that's still far from the grand slam that it needs to be a contender. And if it doesn't wind up being a breakout hit, then all eyes will be on the next handset debut — the Q10.
Obviously BlackBerry 10 is still so new that it can't really drive success for either of these handsets, so results would hinge on BlackBerry's name and — in the case of the Q10 — its reputation for outstanding keyboards. So the big question is this: Is there still a market for candybar-style smartphones with hardware QWERTYs?
Back in the day ("the day" equals 2008), I was a huge fan of hardware keyboards. And I won't lie — I was bummed at first about mobile makers moving away from them in favor of capacitive ones, even though I knew the reasons were practical and totally reasonable. With fewer physical keys to contend with, there was less complication in manufacturing and QA. Handsets could go thinner, there were fewer hardware glitches to worry about, and with software-driven keyboards, updates and tweaks were easy.
But there's no satisfying "click." Smartphones became hard to use one-handed, and nearly impossible to use without putting both eyes and your full attention on it. Of course I've gotten used to capacitive keyboards and other on-screen buttons, swipes, gestures and inputs. But part of me still misses the feeling (and speed) of using those little keys. And for people with poor eyesight, arthritic hands or other disabilities, the Q10 could be a godsend.
The device can't subsist on this demographic alone, however. It needs to appeal to a broader audience for any hope of success. That may seem like an easy call, considering how text-happy and status-update-addicted we all seem to be, but it's not. There's stiff competition. BYOD ("bring your own device") initiatives are making BlackBerries increasingly irrelevant in the enterprise, which had been its strongest sector. And complicating matters is the fact that there are other smartphones from companies like Motorola that also have physical QWERTYs.
What competitors don't have, however, is the quintessential feels-good, works-great BlackBerry keyboard in that highly pocketable, one-hand operable form factor. (The competition is mainly comprised of slide-out trays with flatter keys, which offer a different user-experience.) But is that enough?
At this point in the game, the question remains — are there enough hardware keyboard fans still left? Is an amazing keyboard enough of a differentiator to give the Q10 — and by extension, BlackBerry — a decent shot at success? Let us know what you think in the comments. And if you're a hardware QWERTY fan, definitely weigh in.
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