Memo to RIM: Don't give up your keyboard

CNET explains why it would be a mistake for Research In Motion to drop the iconic Bold design in favor of the more standard full-length touch screen.

commentary Dear Research In Motion,

A mock-up of the rumored BlackBerry Colt. N4BB

I know I've taken a few shots at you for not moving quickly enough to keep pace with your competitors. But there are some sacred cows you shouldn't sacrifice in the name of progress.

It would be a mistake to go away from the classic design of the Bold. Research in Motion

I am, of course, talking about your iconic keyboard.

If the rumors are true, your first super-smartphone running on the next-generation BBX platform will be an all-touch-screen device. PC Mag essentially confirmed it in an interview with RIM's new developer guru, Alec Saunders, who said the device uses the same screen ratio--16:9--as the PlayBook tablet. Such a large screen suggests you'll be eschewing the traditional physical keyboard.

If I may be so bold (pun intended), let me offer some unsolicited advice: this is a mistake.

The keyboard is what sets you apart from the competition. It's right up there with the smooth e-mail experience and security features as the top reasons to get a BlackBerry.

I've had my share of criticism for BlackBerrys. The operating system--even the latest version--still lacks the refinement of iOS or Android; its selection of apps is still paltry when compared to the competition; I even recommended forgoing this latest wave of BlackBerrys in favor of the next-generation version .

What I've never done is mock the keyboard. Typing on the new Bold, for instance, is a pleasure. You have the physical keys down to an exact science, and clicking down on them is both satisfying and reassuring. It would be a shame to give that up.

In a bid to play catch-up with your competitors, you could potentially abandon the design that drove your rise to prominence in the smartphone business. It's an iconic look that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time in a corporate setting. I'm talking about the army of white-collar e-mail fiends that can't stop firing back e-mail or a quick note on BlackBerry Messenger. That base of customers could turn away from BlackBerry if they can no longer rely on the tactile feel of physical keys.

The keyboard also sets you apart from your rivals; a full touch screen would only add you to the ranks of a wave of similar-looking smartphones. If your customers were going to buy a keyboard-less smartphone, they would have moved over to an iPhone or Android device already.

There's a reason why the Bold is selling briskly, while your other products haven't fared as well, according to analyst estimates.

I get that there's a need for a larger screen. The 16:9 ratio of the PlayBook, shrunk down to smartphone size, would be ideal for watching movies, browsing the Internet, and displaying photos. But I'm not sure that makes up for losing what is essentially the soul of a BlackBerry.

Let's not forget, you haven't had the greatest experience with full touch-screen phones. The Storm, despite selling well, was a travesty. It was buggy, slow, and error-prone. Full disclosure: I owned the successor Storm 2 and know how miserable the experience is without a physical keyboard. The new all-touch-screen Torch is competent, but wholly unremarkable.

The original Torch, meanwhile, while a little underpowered, managed to get a big touch screen while keeping the keyboard intact. Sure, it was no Bold, but it offered a decent compromise to the BlackBerry faithful.

Now, I don't know what you have up your sleeves when it comes to your BBX smartphone lineup. For all I know, you may have a Bold-like device in the works. But Saunders comments' about all PlayBook apps being able to run at the same aspect ratio on BBX phones suggest a lot of similar large screen sizes--and fewer opportunities for keyboards.

In this case, it's okay to embrace your legacy. The keyboard is one of the primary reasons BlackBerry users remain loyal to you, it would only be smart to continue supporting it.

Oh, and while you're at it, could you hurry up with the BBX BlackBerrys please?

About the author

Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan.

 

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