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Mysterious BlackBerry Slider combines the old and new of smartphone design

BlackBerry has flashed a glimpse of a mystery phone with a sliding keyboard, nicknamed "the Slider".

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The mysterious BlackBerry "Slider". BlackBerry

BARCELONA -- Sliding phones -- remember them? BlackBerry certainly does, giving us a glimpse of a mystery slider phone here at Mobile World Congress. Rather imaginatively, it's nicknamed "the Slider".

The mystery Slider phone isn't a finished product; it was flashed by BlackBerry boss John Chen at the launch of the new 5-inch Leap , which is nearly finished and goes on sale in April.

Slider phones typically include a keyboard that slides out from under the screen. Popular in the pre-smartphone days, their days were numbered the second the iPhone came along and showed us the virtues of a touchscreen that takes up the whole face of the phone.

The advent of the touchscreen was tough on BlackBerry. The company found a huge following among business users, devotees using the company's signature clicky Qwerty keyboard to email. But the downside of a big keyboard is that it takes up half the face of the phone, limiting the size of the screen. In this day and age, as people embrace Web surfing, playing games and watching high-definition video on their mobile devices, the market has moved towards bigger screens, not smaller -- putting BlackBerry dangerously at odds with the prevailing trend.

Hence "the Slider", which solves that problem by combining a large touchscreen with a handy keyboard. The keyboard can be stowed away when not in use or popped out for a hardcore bout of emailing or other businessy business. Sounds like the best of both worlds, right?

Well, almost; another reason slider phones died a death is that in terms of size they're essentially two phones glued together. That extra thickness is at odds with another major trend of the smartphone era: as phones have got bigger, they've also got thinner.

BlackBerry devices executive Ron Louks teases a BlackBerry with a slide-out keyboard. Sarah Tew/CNET

BlackBerry has been here before -- its Torch range of phones was first released in 2010, featuring a slide-out keyboard.

It's been a difficult few years for BlackBerry. Back when it was called Research in Motion, the Canadian company essentially made the smartphone mainstream with its connected, email-focused BlackBerry mobile devices, but since the iPhone and then Android came along, the firm has found itself increasingly left behind. In response, BlackBerry has started to shift emphasis to licensing out its top-class business services to other manufacturers -- but three quarters of its revenue still comes from smartphones, meaning the firm still badly needs to shift hardware.

Sales continue to drop though: the revamped BlackBerry 10 operating system wasn't the hit BlackBerry needed, and the company's market share plummeted in 2014 to just 0.4 percent, according to IDC, marking a huge drop from 1.9 percent the year before.

In these troubled times, a phone as out-there as the Slider looks like a pretty big gamble. If it becomes real and proves popular, the mysterious Slider could help prevent BlackBerry from sliding into oblivion -- but if no-one buys it, BlackBerry could end up joining the slider phone in the list of things that nobody wants any more.

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