Technology & Science

Typing in 'the zone': Why the physical QWERTY keyboard still matters to some

You've probably switched over to typing on your smartphone's touch screen, but don't discount the physical QWERTY keyboard as dead just yet. Here's why.

Button mashers have reason to celebrate — the new BlackBerry model features it prominently

The physical QWERTY keyboard may have died out elsewhere but it's a central part of BlackBerry's legacy and is a feature on its new phone, dubbed the Mercury. Here's one of the keyboards on the Blackberry Q10 handset back in April 2014. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

You've probably switched over to typing on your smartphone's touch screen, but don't discount the physical QWERTY keyboard as dead just yet.

BlackBerry's upcoming smartphone, dubbed the "Mercury," includes a physical keyboard, a major feature which is part of the company's legacy but has been left out of recent models. The new phone marks a return to BlackBerry's roots — fitting given it's the last one the Waterloo, Ont.-based company has designed and engineered in-house.

"No one else is building QWERTY keyboards on a smartphone, really," said Michael Fisher, a Boston-based technology reviewer who goes by the nickname Mr. Mobile. "I don't see a lot of people jumping back from touch screen to QWERTY."

So with the dwindling number of physical keyboards being made, why does BlackBerry persist?

"They think there's still a market for it and I think they are right," he said. Physical keyboards are generally easier to type on while doing something else, like walking.

Fisher tested out an early pre-production model of the new BlackBerry at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month, where the company gave a sneak peek. More details won't be announced until February at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona.

Fisher lauded the company for being innovative with the keyboard. In addition to typing, it can be used as a trackpad to scroll while the space bar doubles as a fingerprint scanner.

And as with past BlackBerrys, Fisher said the keys can be set up as shortcuts to launch apps, a move that saves scrolling time.

"Personally, I love the nostalgic factor of a physical keyboard," Fisher said. "I really got flying on those keys after a while."

'People will have to switch'

But is nostalgia enough to keep the physical keyboard alive?

Christian de Looper, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based mobile tech reporter who writes for Digital Trends, doesn't think so. "It's as good as dead as far as moving forward," he said of the keyboard. "It's not going to make a comeback."

Though BlackBerry is one of the only companies still using a physical QWERTY keyboard on some of its phones, many had them throughout the 2000s — like this Nokia 9300 Professional smartphone from 2004. (Jeff Zelevansky/Reuters)

He thinks on-screen keyboards make more sense, with their ability to cater to different languages, different symbols, even emojis. With a lot of button mashing, physical keyboards can break or certain buttons can stop working.

Last month, de Looper was tasked with rounding up the best smartphones with physical QWERTY keyboards for an article he was working on. He said he found it a challenge to find any still for sale — there are a few still being made by LG, and of course there are the BlackBerry models. But other experiments have failed.

There's no demand for physical keyboards. There's only demands for BlackBerry.- Kevin Michaluk, Mobile Nations

He estimates the number of people using these keyboard phones is very small. He says he doesn't know a single person who still uses one.

"I think over the next few years, people will have to switch whether they like it or not."

The new BlackBerry smartphone won't change that, he said.

"This is BlackBerry's way of exiting the smartphone business."

Is the demand still there?

It's been a tough past year for BlackBerry, the most prominent name behind physical keyboards.

Last September, BlackBerry announced it would stop manufacturing the hardware for its smartphones and outsource it to partners. This came after lacklustre sales and the company's move to scrap its Classic model, which also retained the physical QWERTY keyboard.

Alex Thurber, the company's senior vice-president for global device sales, said the keyboards are what set BlackBerrys apart from the more popular Apple and Samsung smartphones, which use touch screen keyboards.

"I think there's a demand for keyboard phones," he said in an interview, when hinting at the "Mercury" last October.

But Kevin Michaluk, better known as his now-retired blogging moniker CrackBerry Kevin, takes issue with that.

"There's no demand for physical keyboards. There's only demands for BlackBerry," said the Winnipeg-based technology addict, who is now the chief media officer for Mobile Nations. It oversees the CrackBerry and Android Central blog brands, among others.

A Canadian flag flies at BlackBerry's headquarters in Waterloo, Ont. The company is putting out its last phone that was designed and engineered in-house, which includes a physical QWERTY keyboard. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

"It still matters to the people who use it" — a group Michaluk calls "road warriors."

He points out two demographics in particular who benefit from the physical keyboard: older people who are shaky on touch screens ("That shakiness screws you") and women with fingernails, who find it easier to type on actual buttons.

"When BlackBerry was really taking off in certain markets, it was actually skewing female in certain markets," he said, attributing the fingernails.

Though Michaluk has switched over to a touch screen keyboard for a few years now, he tried out the new BlackBerry with its physical keyboard … and it could win him back.

"Your fingers dance when you get into the zone, which I think touch screens just don't have," he said, giddy with excitement.

That makes him ponder the possibility for what he calls a "CrackBerry renaissance period."

"To say physical keyboards are gone and dead [and] you'll never see them again is a stupid thing to say."

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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