We've had a hunch for a long time now that the first BlackBerry 10 phone to hit the market later this year will feature a full touchscreen design, lacking the physical keyboard that BlackBerry is traditionally known for. This was confirmed earlier this month at BlackBerry World, when we got our first preview of BlackBerry 10, running on a full touchscreen Dev Alpha device.
Some media outlets took the BlackBerry 10 touchscreen typing demonstration to mean that Research In Motion would be abandoning the physical keyboard on future phones. CEO Thorsten Heins quickly squashed that misinformation the next day, when he confirmed during a press session that there would definitely be phones in the BlackBerry 10 portfolio that offer a physical keyboard.
Phew. This confirmation led to a big *sigh* of relief from CrackBerry Nation, including your's truly. Despite this good news, however, I've observed a lot of comments and discussions in the forums among users arguing that it's a mistake for BlackBerry 10 to launch with a full touchscreen device. For many BlackBerry users, it's precisely the love for the physical keyboard that has kept them from defecting to the competition, and it's these users who have been waiting the longest for a major operating system revamp to BlackBerry phones.
As of now we're not sure how long it will be after the launch of the first BlackBerry 10 phone before a variant with a physical keyboard will be released. For the sake of the BlackBerry faithful who want it, I hope that the wait will be a short one. But I will reason that RIM is absolutely making the right decision to launch a full touchscreen BlackBerry 10 phone first. Keep reading for my reasons why.
1. BlackBerry needs to prove it can build a full touchscreen device that is relevant (aka Tech Reviewers would rip a physical keyboard BB 10 phone apart)
Walk into any carrier store today and you will find yourself in a sea of full touchscreen devices. The few devices that do have physical keyboards are likely to be BlackBerry Smartphones. This illustrates two important points. First, that customers have a preference for full touchscreen devices. Secondly, that the competition has all but conceded the physical keyboard segment of the smartphone market to BlackBerry already.
If the first BlackBerry 10 phones that RIM shipped out to tech reviewers had physical keyboards, the resulting reviews would be a bloodbath. You can envision the headlines and conclusions just thinking about it.... "BlackBerry proves they still don't get what consumers want" ... "BlackBerry still hasn't figured out how to make a proper touchscreen phone" ... you get the picture. And if you've followed the BlackBerry press over the past couple of years, you know I'm right on this one.
It's easy for RIM to make an excellent physical keyboard. They need to launch with the full touchscreen phone because it's the more challenging thing for them to prove they can do. And for those saying they should launch with both at once -- unveil both a full touchscreen and physical keyboard device at launch -- I think even that would be a mistake as RIM needs all of that attention going into the fact they've finally killed it with a full touchscreen experience. When the first BlackBerry 10 phone hits the market the world will be watching, and BlackBerry needs to take that opportunity to win back reviewer and consumer that RIM can carve out a niche and be competitive in that sea of full touchscreen devices.
RIM has a clear focus of who they're building BlackBerry 10 for and how it will be differentiated in the touchscreen market. We're loving the direction they're taking here (the topic of an upcoming editorial).
2. RIM wants people talking about how good their touchscreen keyboard is
Everybody knows BlackBerry makes the best physical keyboards. If you disagree with that statement, you've never used the BlackBerry Bold 9900 (seriously, it's not even open for debate). Watching the BB10 touchscreen keyboard demo at BlackBerry World, it became clear that RIM wants to be known for having the best keyboards on phones, be it physical or touchscreen, period.
As much as people can cope with typing on touchscreen keyboards, it's still one of the things most complained about by touchscreen users. With the BlackBerry 10 touchscreen keyboard RIM has really shown some innovation, and what we've seen so far looks to have the ingredients of a keyboard that is not only fast and easy to type on (even with one hand,) but also addictive and fun to use.
If the first BlackBerry 10 phone reviews all say that the touchscreen keyboard rocks, that's a massively good thing for BlackBerry. Even if there are some other gaps at launch, if the touchscreen keyboard rocks, that'll go a long way towards BlackBerry getting back into the game.
3. Apps, Apps, Apps - a front facing physical keyboard would fragment resolutions for developers
The BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha device has the same HD aspect ratio as the BlackBerry PlayBook. There's a reason for this. It makes it easy for developers to turn their existing PlayBook apps into apps for a full touchscreen BlackBerry 10 phone.
We're not quite sure how RIM is going to handle resolution when it comes to a BlackBerry 10 phone with a front facing physical keyboard (the same sort of form factor as a Bold 9900). RIM could do a slider that shared the same resolution as the Dev Alpha, but when it comes to putting a keyboard on the front of the device, the display aspect ratio would change. You'd likely get more of a 1:1 aspect ratio (with no need for the trackpad and navigation buttons, we'd expect the display to be 20 - 30% taller than on a device like the Bold 9900).
In order to support a BB10 phone with a keyboard on the front, RIM would either have to introduce some fragmentation and force developers to support another resolution, or perhaps run apps like games in a frame on the display - leave games in HD format but put black bars on the top and bottom. Either way, right now RIM needs to simply hustle on getting apps onto BlackBerry 10 for the launch of the first phone. Going with the same resolution as the PlayBook just makes sense. To launch the first BlackBerry 10 phone with a physical keyboard on the front would just make things messy, and RIM doesn't need any messiness when BB10 hits the market.
4. Gives RIM a chance to blow out inventory of old BlackBerry 7 phones
People who value physical keyboards value the communication prowess of BlackBerry Smartphones, which in-market BlackBerry 6 and 7 phones address pretty well. By launching BlackBerry 10 with a full touchscreen first, it gives RIM a bit more time to keep blowing out the inventory of their older BBOS devices.
I know, it's a bit of a weak reason, but it's sort of true. Also remember that enterprises that are still running fleets of BlackBerry Smartphones don't necessarily upgrade or swap things out overnight. For the companies that are still running BES and are not changing overnight, they'll still be looking for and buying BlackBerry 6 and 7 phones.
Also, RIM is still doing fairly well with low cost BlackBerry smartphones in international markets, even introducing new models right now. While we know BlackBerry 10 will proliferate the entire product portfolio (I take it to that means eventually low end as well), RIM will have a better chance to blow out that inventory they're pushing hard to sell now if the initial BB10 phone is a higher end full touch model.
5. BYOD is a reality; RIM needs to win over consumers who are bringing their own devices to work
While point 4 addresses that some enterprises are still committed to BES, the opposite is also true. There is a huge shift in enterprise to support the Bring Your Own Device to work model. RIM has been losing out with BYOD as consumers have been wanting to bring touchscreen devices into the work place (they were used to getting handed the physical keyboard BlackBerry Smartphones for years before that).
The adoption of RIM's Mobile Fusion mobile device management (MDM) product will really be driven by a wanting-ness for consumers to bring BlackBerry 10 phones into the enterprise. These users are the ones RIM really needs to try and get on BlackBerry 10 at launch -- these are the BlackBerry People who Do -- and it's an awesome full touchscreen that's going to have the best initial attraction, especially for those who may have (reluctantly) left BlackBerry for another platform. A physical keyboard BlackBerry 10 phone wouldn't win back the love with those who already left BlackBerry for full touchscreen competitor. In a BYOD world the BES / IT admins have to support the devices employees want to bring to work. There are other MDM solutions out there already for companies to use. Mobile Fusion will do the best job of supporting BB10 devices of course (as well as a good job on iOS and Android), but companies will only be pulled into Mobile Fusion if employees want BB10 devices. RIM needs to win these people over.
OK. Those are five reasons why it wouldn't make sense for RIM to first launch BlackBerry 10 with a full physical keyboard design. I think the logic is pretty sound. Agree or disagree? Sound off in the comments!