Switched On: BlackBerry's depressing keyboard trends

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

DNP Switched On BlackBerry's depressing keyboard trends

In a March interview, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, whose company's smartphone ambitions led to his vacating a board seat at Apple, claimed that he didn't use either an Android phone or iPhone. Rather, he uses a Blackberry, citing his affinity for its keyboard despite a number of Android models released over the years integrating physical thumb keyboards.

RIM devices had keyboards even before they had email; the feature was part of the BlackBerry's predecessor, the RIM Inter@ctive Pager. Indeed, tactile feedback was so valued by the company that it tried to integrate it into the touchscreen with the BlackBerry Storm. In reviewing that phone for The New York Times, David Pogue noted, "A BlackBerry without a keyboard is like an iPod without a scroll wheel." Imagine such a thing.

Indeed, like the click wheel, the keyboard has faded quickly from that landscape. According to Mobile Phone Track, a consumer purchase-tracking service of The NPD Group, handsets with physical keyboards accounted for 61 percent of smartphone sales in the first quarter of 2010. That percentage had halved a year later and dropped to just 21 percent in the first quarter of 2012. In the first quarter of 2013, just 7 percent of smartphones had keyboards.

The keyboard was more likely a victim of BlackBerry's fall from grace rather than consumer preference turning against the keyboard per se and thus hurting the company's sales. If one is used to typing on a physical keyboard, typing on a touchscreen can be inaccurate and unsatisfying at first.

However, many acclimate over time. Besides, as phone screens have pushed past the 4-, 5- and now even 6-inch barriers, keyboards have gotten larger. And we've seen third-party add-ons for Android in Swype and SwiftKey that can greatly accelerate text entry on such touchscreens. And while it may not be discreet to dictate in many circumstances, voice is clearly playing a growing role in all major smartphone operating systems.

BlackBerry still believes in the power of physical keyboards, teeing up the Q10 as one of its BB10 launch devices and recently introducing the lower-cost Q5. But the Z10, which lacks a physical keyboard, was the first to market for the newly renamed smartphone company.

At the introduction of the iPhone, Steve Jobs made what was, at the time, considered a controversial stand against physical smartphone keyboards just as he would years later against larger devices at the iPad introduction. Dismissing their value on products such as the Palm Treo, Motorola Q, Nokia E62 and BlackBerry Pearl, he noted that "they all have these keyboards that are there whether you need them or not to be there." It's clear that, for many, the value that physical keyboards bring is worth the screen real estate sacrifices even when they're not needed. However, for BlackBerry to grow meaningfully, its phones will need to resonate with those who have pressed Escape on the smartphone's keyboard.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.