Is the keyboard the only thing keeping BlackBerry afloat?

Some recent encounters by a CNET executive editor suggest that the BlackBerry's dwindling fortunes may be hanging by a keyboard. Is there anything BlackBerry can do to stem the fall?

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
4 min read

The other day I was taking a spinning class at the gym and I looked over at the woman next to me and noticed she had both a BlackBerry Bold and an iPhone 4 propped up on her bike's handlebars. This was New York, where it's not unusual to see people pounding out e-mails in the middle of a spinning class at 6:30 a.m. But most people just do it on a single phone. However, this woman, who turned out to work for a hedge fund, had some double-barrel e-mail action going.

What a lot of BlackBerry users want but can't have. iblogmyphones.tumblr.com

"Let me guess," I said after class. "BlackBerry's for work. iPhone's personal."

"Uh, yeah," she said a little embarrassed.

"Well, here's my question. If you could only have just one of those two phones, what would it be?"

She thought about it for a moment and said, "The iPhone, I guess. The BlackBerry's great for e-mail but basically useless for everything else."

"But you seem to be doing e-mail OK on the iPhone."

"Yeah, but I can't type nearly as fast. I really need the keyboard. And there's just something about the BlackBerry keyboard."

"So the only reason you use the BlackBerry is because of its keyboard?"

"Pretty much. And I know the interface and can navigate it really fast. Why are you asking?"

I told her I worked for CNET, that "big" tech Web site, and that I was doing an article on BlackBerry's troubles. I said I used to be a BlackBerry guy back when the BlackBerry was just an e-mail machine, not also a phone. I loved it. Then I went to Windows Mobile, had a brief affair with a Treo, went back to Windows Mobile, and now I was entering my third year with an iPhone 3GS.

I told her that I, too, preferred the BlackBerry keyboard, but I'd learned to live with the iPhone's virtual keyboard by rewiring myself to write shorter e-mails. Ultimately, that's what I thought BlackBerry's problem was. That wonderful keyboard and familiar interface were being trumped mightily by the alluring world of apps, eye-pleasing icons, souped-up cameras, and plenty of other extras.

BlackBerry's answer to touch-screen smartphones, the Torch, was OK but a step behind its Android and iPhone brethren. Worse, too many hard-core BlackBerry users preferred the older BlackBerry interface. My wife, for instance, had returned her Torch and gone back to a Bold (she also has a BlackBerry Curve as her personal e-mail device sans voice).

As a result, I said, BlackBerry now finds itself in a Catch-22 situation where its biggest strength (a great e-mail machine) has turned into its biggest liability (it's just a great e-mail machine).

In just the past few weeks, four BlackBerry-using friends have e-mailed me asking about when the iPhone 5 was coming out. They weren't certain they were going to switch but their companies now supported the iPhone, so they were very tempted. They confessed that the only thing holding them back was their love for the BlackBerry keyboard. A couple of them had iPod Touches, so they'd gotten a taste for e-mailing using an iOS device, and while they both said the experience wasn't as good as e-mailing with the BlackBerry, they were considering "dealing with it."

"Cell phone trends have a lot of to do with contract cycles," I said. "You have a lot of BlackBerry users sitting on two-year-old and older BlackBerries who are eligible for subsidized hardware upgrades. BlackBerry just hasn't given their customers that next great phone to upgrade to. So anybody who's not a die-hard BlackBerry lover is going to be looking at the iPhone 5 or these Android models. And you may very well be looking at the iPhone 5 being on all carriers, which could easily create a BlackBerry bloodbath."

"It's sad," she said. "I love my BlackBerry. But I hate it. What can they do?"

"I don't know. Maybe go retro. Monochrome. Cheap. Six weeks of battery life. I miss my 957."

"They can't do that."

"I know. How 'bout if they went Android? If you could get an Android phone with a BlackBerry keyboard, would you buy it?"

"I tried one with a slide-out keyboard and I didn't like it. It wasn't the same. Why don't they just try making better phones that cost less?"

I told her that was hard because what a lot of BlackBerry users ultimately wanted was an iPhone with a BlackBerry keyboard--an iBlackBerry, if you will. The evidence was in her hands.

"That'd be good," she said. "Why doesn't BlackBerry license the iPhone OS from Apple?"

"Not going to happen. Just like Apple wouldn't buy BlackBerry. Cheaper to put it out of business."

"I like that idea. The iBlackBerry. That's what I want. Put that in your story."

"You can't have it."

"So what. Put it in."