While it wasn't one of RIM's planned news stories for last week's BBJAM event, we did get a first unofficial look at the upcoming BlackBerry N-Series phone. The images showed up on the information super highway thanks to a RIM internal marketing video which appeared to have been haphazardly uploaded by the contracted video editor (people don't say information super highway enough anymore... I'm bringing it back old school).
The N-Series phone -- the N standing for Nevada and Naples, the codenames for these devices -- which I still can't help but think will eventually be part of the Bold family, couples a physical keyboard to the BlackBerry 10 operating system.
The phone appears to feature a form factor extremely similar in size and shape to the BlackBerry Bold 9900, but with a few important design differences. Making room for the now taller 720x720 display, gone is the row of buttons between the display and keyboard, which traditionally features the navigation trackpad and call / menu / back / end keys. As for the keyboard, instead of the smiling keyboard layout of the 9900, it features a linear layout more akin to that of the Porsche Design BlackBerry. These changes are a little startling at first glance, though from my point of view were not unexpected.
Ever since the BlackBerry PlayBook was unveiled at DevCon two years ago, we've been hypothesizing the demise of the trackpad for when the new QNX-based OS made its way onto a phone. Given that the PlayBook OS never made use of a menu key, back button or navigation input other than the touchscreen, it only made sense that this completely touchscreen user interface would remain fully touchscreen on the phone too.
That said, reading through some of the comments and forum threads that have emerged since the photos showed up, it's apparent many of you were still both surprised by the disappearance of the trackpad and concerned over this change. No doubt, on current BlackBerry 7 and older smartphones the centrally-mounted trackpad (and even trackball on older models) is one of the main features that allows the phone to be used easily with one hand. Moving your thumb just a half-inch in any direction of the trackpad gives you full control of the operating system. With a full touchscreen design, your thumb/fingers will have to cover more distance.
I believe RIM shares the same concern for one-handed use that many of us hardcore users do, and also believe based on what we've seen so far of BlackBerry 10 that any concerns over the lack of the trackpad will be short lived once individuals get their hands on the phone. If you look at the hub and flow experience of BlackBerry 10, it's made to be touched.
Throughout BlackBerry 10, it's clear that the user interface is designed to give off the feeling that the user can really control and manipulate the operating system. Look at the touchscreen as quick example. It's not just a slide to unlock down a fixed path. Instead, as you swipe up from the bezel up you can really see the OS light up directly below your finger, and you can swipe upward in any direction - there's not just a fixed way to do it. Think about the peek and flow gestures that are so fundamental to the BlackBerry 10 experience. It seems like making these gestures work off a trackpad would be extremely tricky, given their nature. Would you want to be able to swipe up on the trackpad to peak in too? Or just off the display? How about glancing back within apps to the different layers within the app? Via the trackpad too? Or just the display?
Trackpad navigation suited the BlackBerry OS because navigation was mapped out in more of a straight path. Moving the trackpad or cursor from top to bottom or bottom to top on the display could move you around to basically every selectable option on the display. But with BlackBerry 10 it would become very tricky, especially given the gestures for peek and flow. And if you can't use the trackpad all the time, then that becomes confusing to the user too.
Bottom line, on BlackBerry 10 I think having the trackpad would only complicate navigation around the OS and even with apps. I think it's fine to still "want the trackpad"... but if you really think about how BlackBerry 10 works, I think it becomes apparent pretty quick that the experience would start to break down in a lot of areas if RIM tried to implement a trackpad into the device.
We've said it before and we'll say it again. The keyboard on the BlackBerry Bold 9900 is the BEST keyboard ever put on a smartphone. That being the case, it's hard to imagine a better keyboard and seeing any changes to that keyboard design is reason enough for us to feel a little angst.
It's easy to see from a design perspective why RIM chose to straighten the keyboard out - it would look funny to keep the curved smiley face layout. Doing so would make for a weird looking gap below the display and above the keyboard. So it appears RIM went with a linear layout, similar to the P'9981, but with keys more of the Bold 9900's design.
Though typing on the keyboard is no doubt going to feel a little different than the 9900, based on what we're seeing I don't think it should be worse. I spent a lot of time typing on the P'9981 and actually grew very accustomed to the linear layout. I actually think the straight design aids in building up muscle memory for the layout of the keyboard. With the P'9981 the small-ish / flat buttons made the typing experience not quite as nice as the 9900, but marrying Bold 9900 style buttons to a linear layout should be pretty decent.
Also, we know that RIM knows just how much people love the Bold 9900's keyboard. I don't think they would want to take a step backwards here. So let' just that while the keyboard does appear to be a bit different, it's not something I'm going to stress about just yet.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I think I've already squeezed about 1,075 out of this article just talking about the trackpad and keyboard. So with that, I'll turn it over to you.
Is the image above long the lines of what you were expecting from RIM's first BlackBerry 10 phone with a keyboard? We're you expecting something different? Vote on the poll above and then sound off in the comments!
We're still months away from being able to run into the store and buy one these bad boys, so we'll have lots of time to debate it.