Cheer up, aficionados of real BlackBerry keyboards. Even though a preview earlier this week of Research In Motion's new BlackBerry 10 operating system featured a touchscreen keyboard, the company now insists that it will not turn its back on physical ones.
Some alarm could be justified over the possibility that all your thumb-experience with actual keys could go to waste in the next generation of BlackBerry smartphones. On Tuesday, when RIM previewed its new OS at a Blackberry conference in Orlando, the touchscreen keyboard was front and center , while the physical one was absent from the discussion.
'Just Plain Wrong'
To assure nervous BlackBerry users who might have wondered whether all was going to be virtual, CEO Thorsten Heins made a point on Wednesday of saying that RIM will not abandon physical keyboards.
Heins said the new BB10 product line of smartphones will include models with physical keyboards, as well as virtual ones. In his words to news media at the Orlando conference, Heins said "it would be wrong -- just plain wrong" to drop actual keyboards, since a real keyboard has been part of the brand.
To make sure the message got across, RIM spokeswoman Tenille Kennedy similarly confirmed that the company was not abandoning the physical incarnation.
In addition to the fact that a physical keyboard was not shown with the BB10 OS, RIM-watchers recall that the company has a recent history of missing the boat. After some years as the king of business phones, for instance, RIM ignored the growing wave of flashy new Android and Apple smartphones, even as its software steadily slipped behind the curve.
The dilemma is how to address the new, without losing the value of the old. At the same time that there are clearly some devoted fans of the traditional BlackBerry -- President Obama being perhaps the most visible -- it's an open question as to whether most of RIM's future customers want a real keyboard, or would prefer to go all-virtual.
The 'Iconic' QWERTY BlackBerry
We asked Laura DiDio, an analyst with Information Technology Intelligence Consulting, how important the physical keyboard is to the future of the company.
She noted that the physical keyboard "has certainly been associated with the BlackBerry brand." But, DiDio added, since the company is "being pressured by the big boys, they have to do all they can to keep their installed based happy" while still matching or beating what the competition is doing.
She compared RIM's need -- and risk -- in transitioning to its BB10 platform, to Microsoft 's transitioning to its new Windows 8 operating system. Microsoft also must keep its legacy Windows interface aboard, she said, while emphasizing its new touch-screen interface.
Current Analysis' Avi Greengart described the classic QWERTY BlackBerry as "iconic," but agreed that, if the company is to be competitive, "it has to be competitive on the virtual side."
In addition to the Microsoft comparison, Greengart also pointed to the same dynamic for Nokia moving from Symbian to Windows Phone, and -- although it was ill-fated because it was delayed and other factors -- Palm's move to webOS.