My very first smartphone was a PalmOne Treo 650, and it had a keyboard. I eventually moved through various Palm phones, up to the HP Pre3, before everything Palm fell apart and I begrudgingly made the switch to a slab-of-glass iPhone 5. But I still lusted after a keyboard, I craved that tactility that the iPhone couldn't provide me. The Android options were… limited, to say the least.
But a few years later, BlackBerry released its first Android phone, the slider BlackBerry Priv, and on paper it was everything I wanted: a modern smartphone OS from a company that new how to make keyboard phones. But… it sucked. I was okay with the then-huge size (a 5.4-inch screen!) and accepted the mediocre camera, but the performance and battery life were just abysmal and BlackBerry's first crack at Android was so unpolished that the phone ran scorchingly hot doing nothing in my pocket. I wanted to love it, but it wasn't up to snuff.
TCL's modern smartphone expertise and BlackBerry's keyboard chops should've made an amazing keyboard phone. But…
And then a few years after that were the BlackBerry KeyOne and Key2, produced by brand licensee TCL. While TCL wasn't an experienced keyboard maker, they did know how to make solid Android phones and had been doing so for years under multiple brands. Add in BlackBerry's keyboard knowledge the KeyOne and Key2 should've been rockstars.
But… they weren't. Don't get me wrong, they were decent, but too many Android apps were not designed to work well on so small of a screen, performance was mediocre, and with cameras becoming an essential part of the smartphone system and these were just bad. At least the battery life was really good, and the price of both phones was very reasonable.
There have been other attempts at keyboard phones since the end of the BlackBerry-TCL partnership, but to be frank they've all been pretty bad. There have been some decent keyboards, and decent performing phones, but never both in the same package. It's like the companies making these are banking on the keyboard being the gimmick that will make up for all the other mediocre things about their product, and in 2023 that's just not good enough.
There are two things that need to happen to make a great keyboard phone in these days: the keyboard needs to be rock solid, and the rest of the phone also needs to be excellent too. There's no room for compromise, and that compromise is what has been keeping keyboard phones down for over a decade.
The keyboard needs to be good
When the central idea of your phone is "it has a keyboard", then that keyboard absolutely must be unquestionably solid. It has to be a top-tier keyboard, enough for a user shelling out for this phone to justify giving up the very smart virtual keyboards we have grown accustomed to these days.
First up is tactility. The keyboard needs to be physically responsive, with appreciable key travel and a functionally physical click that's uniform across each and every key. But also, you know, not annoyingly loud enough that people will look at you when you're banging out a quick message.
This tactility also extends to thumb placement. While there's always a learning curve getting used to a new keyboard, it should come with relative ease and be easy enough that when the phone is in your hands there's no question about which key your thumb is over. Just as most of us are capable of using a full-size PC keyboard without having to look at the keys 99.9% of the time, so too should it be easy to type away on a keyboard phone without having to look at the keys outside of edge circumstances like entering special characters.
The keyboard cannot slow the user down. It needs to be fast, it needs to be easy, and it needs to feel like part of the OS.
They keyboard also should not slow down the user's typing experience. That means it needs to be physically easy to use, which means being smart about key placement, sizing, and resistance. All of that needs to be in just the right balance that typing isn't frustrating or laborious. It also must be just as integrated into the software as a virtual keyboard, offering the same degree of tools like predictive text, autocorrect, and easy selection of special characters and emoji.
Physically, the phone must be balanced with the keyboard. A weight imbalance ended up being one of the major pitfalls of the BlackBerry Priv, with the large and heavy upper half of the slider putting most of the mass cantilevered out past the user's hands. It just ended up being awkward and even uncomfortable to use for extended periods of time — often I would find myself turning to a virtual keyboard instead of sliding it open. The KeyOne and Key2 weren't nearly as awkward, but in going for a more compact size they also ended up with compact screens that were limiting for regular users.
Lastly, if there's a gimmick then it has to be good and useful. Both the KeyOne and Key2 had touch-sensitive keys that you could use as a trackpad to scroll through a webpage or typed text, but it was always finicky and kinda janky. As mentioned earlier, the Priv's gimmick was that it was a slider, but that had the tradeoff of unbalanced weight. There's still space for gimmicks, and some features that at first seemed like gimmicks have come to be standards across all modern smartphones. But if you're going to go "out there" with your keyboard design, it better be worth it.
If I may make a suggestion of a feature I've long missed from my old Palm webOS days: Just Type search. When you're at the launcher, just start typing to start a search. No need to swipe or tap a search bar or whatever — just start typing.
The phone also needs to be good
This should go without saying, but seeing as it was an issue for every Android-powered BlackBerry phone: everything else also has to be good too. There are too many excellent slab phones these days that check all of the boxes for the presence of a keyboard to uncheck a bunch of those boxes. Selling a new keyboard phone with terrible battery life or bad cameras is like selling a new car without seatbelts: people expect a certain level of performance and features these days even at the lowest price points, and if you're not meeting that standard then you're not going to move product.
Screen size is of huge importance. Where the BlackBerry Priv was considered to be a large phone in 2015 with its expansive 5.4-inch AMOLED display, today that's actually small. A baseline iPhone 14 has a 6.1-inch display, and the popular "Max" version bumps that up to 6.7 inches. The now-defunct iPhone 13 Mini had a 5.4-inch screen! The small screens of the BlackBerry KeyOne and Key2 (both 4.5 inches) played a role in their market failures. And this was before the age of Instagram Reels and TikTok where full screen video is an important thing. A decent screen size is hugely important — but that comes with the awkwardness of trying to strike a balance in weight distribution.
The old BlackBerry Priv was considered "big" with a 5.4-inch screen. Today that's "mini" and just doesn't sell.
Nobody tolerates a sluggish phone these days, and a phone that grows sluggish through use will be even less tolerated. This means that as much work that goes into a great keyboard experience needs to go into a great overall experience. Speed of use, battery life, and heat management can't be afterthoughts.
Lastly, there's the Achilles' heal of every BlackBerry phone: the cameras. There is no longer an excuse for shipping a high-end phone with mediocre cameras. I don't expect every phone camera to perform to the level of an iPhone, Galaxy S, or Pixel, but I do expect it to at least be decent enough.
Smartphone cameras can't be thought of as just a utility for snapping pics of documents and scanning QR codes. They are table stakes and need to be approached as if they are a core component of the phone — because for many users they truly are. At the very least the camera needs to capture an image that closely resembles what the user sees with their own eyes, and it needs to do so with minimal shutter lag. There's nothing that will irritate a user more than constantly missing the shot.
The marketing needs to be good
Outside of the phone itself, the marketing support around it has to be top notch, which may require rethinking the whole approach. BlackBerry was a phone for business people at its core, but they found surprisingly strong general customer success with the Curve and Pearl lines. And then they failed to keep those customers when Android and Apple started eating their lunch and pivoted back to their core corporate market. But then BlackBerry's own dominance their faded as Apple and Android worked to build in the same sort of tools that had kept businesses loyal to BlackBerry for so many years.
Appealing exclusively to the business crowd won't work anymore. They've largely moved on and convincing a whole corporation that they should switch to your keyboard phone when they've already implemented largely popular BYOD policies isn't going to happen.
Forget the business crowd. A keyboard phone marketing campaign should target the influencers.
But there's a new and rising customer base that could be captured, and it's one that's potentially lucrative and influential: the social media creator. In particular, those that are most active on smartphone-first platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. They are the users that could benefit most from a keyboard phone and could serve as the greatest evangelists for one.
Yes, TikTok and Instagram are definitely video and photo heavy (see above on how good cameras are vitally important), but they're also surprisingly heavy on text interaction for the creators. You put out the video, but then you spend a lot of time interacting with your audience in the comments. And that's all text and typing.
The keyboard phone should also appeal to the serial messenger, the person that spends much of their time chatting with their friends and colleagues over a multitude of apps. These are the users that may benefit tremendously from a keyboard phone, since the typing experience is core to their use experience.
This all does require a more youthful and hip approach to the marketing. Billboards and TV commercials will be far less important than reaching users via social media ads and influencer partnerships.
There's still a place for keyboard phones
To answer the question posed in the title: keyboard phones today haven't been viable because they haven't been good enough. Today's phone buyers don't expect to compromise, and any extra feature like the addition of a keyboard must build on an already-great smartphone experience and without detracting from it.
Everything about it has to be good and there is no room for compromise, not today, not anymore. It can't be something that makes a tech-conscious person like me go "Yeah, but…" when somebody tells me they're thinking about buying it.
I'll harp on it all day long: the phone must be solid all around. Check every box. It doesn't have to be "oh my god amazing" all around, but everything must at least be good enough.
Make that phone? I'll strongly consider buying one.