Hey RIM, Don't Get Too Touchy Feely: The Case for "Physical" Keyboards

RIM's upcoming BlackBerry smartphones will reportedly have a strong focus on touch screens. But CIO.com's Al Sacco says RIM really should not forsake the iconic, button-based keyboard that made it the original king of mobile. Here's why.

BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (RIM) is expected to release a brand new BlackBerry OS in 2012. The software is currently called "BlackBerry 10," though the company could change the name before its official launch. RIM already changed the name once from "BBX" to BlackBerry 10. (Read why here.)

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Along with a shiny new OS, RIM will unveil the next generation of BlackBerry smartphones, all of which will have a strong focus on touch screen navigation if the current rumors pan out. This isn't exactly new, since all of RIM's BlackBerry 7 devices also pack touch screens. But it seems this touch trend will only continue, possibly at the expense of button-based QWERTY keyboards.

I won't get into purported details on the upcoming BlackBerry 10 handsets. (You can pop over to CrackBerry.com if you want device rumors.) But of the four expected BlackBerry 10 devices, only two of them have button-based QWERTY keyboards—and one of those is a slider, with what will likely be a smaller, "condensed" traditional BlackBerry keypad. The BlackBerry "Nevada" is the only rumored new BlackBerry that will look anything like candy bar style, full QWERTY devices I've come to love.

People frequently ask me why I continue to use a BlackBerry smartphone, even though I have access to just about any handheld on the market today. (I currently own an iPhone and a Motorola Atrix in addition to my BlackBerry, and though I use all three frequently, my BlackBerry is my "main" phone).

So why do I stick with BlackBerry? My answer is simple: The keyboard; the BlackBerry messaging application; the keyboard; and the plethora of productivity-oriented shortcuts that make me more efficient with, you guessed it....the BlackBerry <em>keyboard</em>.

Take away the button-based "physical" QWERTY keyboard, and the candy bar form factor, and I'm no longer a BlackBerry user. Really, it's that simple. In my opinion, the current crop of BlackBerry smartphones pack a less-than-impressive software experience with the core OS and the available third-party applications. It's the keyboard and RIM's BES integration with the corporate systems I frequently use that keep me a BlackBerry user. (I switch BlackBerrys very often, and all I have to do to get my device set up with my corporate server is connect it to RIM's desktop software and sync it up.)

I realize why RIM appears to be focusing on touch navigation and new form factors: The most popular smartphones on the market today, iPhones and Android handsets, are almost exclusively touch devices with few or no button-based keyboards. In other words, the masses have spoken, and they want touch screens.

RIM should not ignore this truth. But the company would be wise to focus on the things that differentiate it from its competitors, the things that created loyal BlackBerry users in the first place, and not simply imitate its rivals' successful touch devices.

To that end, I think a majority of new BlackBerry devices should have full QWERTY, button-based keyboards. And I think RIM should still focus on the candy bar form factor. Slider-style devices are all fine and good, if that's your thing, but they really don't compare to candy bar BlackBerrys, in my opinion. And RIM should certainly offer a "slab" style device for consumers who value the screen real estate.

Although RIM's new BlackBerry 10 OS is a much more "touch-centric" OS, sometimes buttons are GOOD. Just because some successful device makers—ahem, APPLE—seem to detest physical buttons, that doesn't mean they should be shunned completely.

What do you think? Is RIM on the right track by focusing more on touch than its traditional keyboard devices? Or should the company stick with the QWERTY "physical" keyboard and candy bar form factor?

Vote in the poll below or drop a comment to let me know.

AS

(Image via CrackBerry.com)

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