RIM's Mike Lazaridis makes the case for QWERTY keyboards on phones, says market for tablets not 'clear yet'

Both of RIM's co-CEOs have reputations for being pretty opinionated dudes, and we feel like Mike Lazaridis in particular would go to the ends of the Earth to support BlackBerry's business model -- but at the cost of one of his own products? Speaking at a tech conference in Toronto today, Lazaridis apparently said that the long-term viability of the tablet market (iPad included) is in doubt, especially as smartphones get more powerful; that would probably serve to quash the rumors from a few days back that the company is working on its own large-display device for release later this year. More interestingly, though, were his comments that full touchscreen phones like the iPhone "aren't that popular" -- that's news to us -- and that many that end up buying them ultimately go back to a physical keyboard handset. You know, like a Bold or a Curve, for instance.

Whether Lazaridis is conveniently forgetting the existence of his own Storm and Storm2, suggesting that touchscreen devices don't have a long-term future at RIM, or just saying that they'll remain a niche play for the company going forward is unclear -- but any way you slice it, we'd say it's a pretty significant dis for the Storm series and its owners. Looking at the bigger picture, it might also be a sign that these guys are still very much on the fast track to becoming the next Windows Mobile -- dinosaurs paralyzed by their own past successes -- but who knows? Maybe there'll always be limitless demand for an endless array of barely iterative hardware paired to a decade-old user interface.

Update: We've received the full transcript of Mike's session from the conference relating specifically to the touchscreen phone and tablet comments, and the reality is quite a bit different from the summary we'd been working from before. As tablets go, he says that "you can't say what's the market for tablets in exclusion of... other devices" -- a fair argument, considering that the iPad's ultimate target demographic still isn't totally fleshed out -- and actually never disrespects touchscreen phones outright, instead saying that the "QWERTY push messaging experience" is still "really, really important" while acknowledging that the company "[continues] to evolve with the research and [investment] in the Storm technology to make sure we get those right." Follow the break for the transcript.

Transcript excerpt #1

<Q>: Let me move on to one more. In December, you gave an interview to the Financial Post, there was a really interesting paragraph that you talked about handling devices and you raised a lot of good questions about their value in what they would accomplish. You didn't really spend as much time, I think as everyone here would want, if you want to answer me, and it was a shorter interview. Maybe you can answer some of those questions now, the markets evolved a little bit, there's been some product announcements. What are your thoughts about that type of form factor?

<A – Mike Lazaridis>: Well. The trends we've been following have been an -- there's been, over the last three to four years, organizations have discovered the value of smartphones clearly, and that's why we're here, and that's what we're talking. And smartphones are always starting to space the need for laptops, but not all laptops, and not all needs. And I know that there are risks organizations that ask their customers when they join, when get hired, do you want a smartphone or a laptop very few get the opportunity to have both. So I think that's an important thing, those are differentiated.

So the question you have ask yourself is when it comes to tablet, what market or what opportunities still it's solving, what problem is it solving, and is it just a replacement laptop. I think that's a difficult one to judge. But I think again if you look at what's happening with smartphones are getting bigger, screens are getting bigger and getting more powerful and faster CPUs, more memory, we go in the 4G networks, we've got Wi-Fi, it's just got everything, the operating systems are becoming more, more powerful, the tools are becoming more, more powerful, more applications are being developed, and are being used in more and more both enterprise and consumer spaces. So, I think at this point if you have to take the whole thing into consideration, you can't say what's the market for tablets in exclusion of the other devices, you have to put the whole thing together and I don't think it's that clear yet.

Excerpt #2

<Q>: In the consumer market, it seems like, in the smartphones, especially, there is a line to be drawn between QWERTY and touchscreen, and you dominate in the QWERTY space. And I wondered what you think -- I think the audience by watching, what do you think about the touchscreen form factor and how that needs to evolve and what do you think you need to do?

<A – Mike Lazaridis>: Well, I mean, clearly the best thing to do is to provide the choice and let the consumer and the customer to ultimately decide. I think what we're seeing in the market though is that, it's not clear if one side fits all and it really isn't. And you can see it because a lot of people are realizing the incredible value and lifestyle improvement that are well-designed QWERTY push messaging experience brings to table. It's really, really important. We're finding -- if you look at the surveys, you can see that large amount of the customers that have purchased touchscreen devices in last two years, they intend to get a device with the QWERTY keyboard on it now, right. I mean, they've got into a point where they've realize that a touchscreen alone is not enough; so that's important.

I think with the trackpad technology is going into the BlackBerrys now, we provide a gesture and an elegance to control. Again, that's unmatched. So, I think that is a third dimension, because you talk about touchscreen devices, you talk about QWERTY devices, but I would argue this is third, the whole control, command and control of things like well-designed trackpad technologies. I think, that's really, really important. And I think, we continue to evolve with the research and invest in the Storm technology to make sure we get those right, we learned a lot and we continue to evolve that platform. I think that again what's important is we provide that choice and we don't lose sight of the fact what's made us famous and what's driving our sales, which is our QWERTY keyboards and our incredible track [indiscernible].