Could This Forgotten Concept Phone Have Saved BlackBerry?

The BlackBerry "Urraco," designed by ChauhanStudio in 2009, was meant to inspire RIM to broaden BlackBerry's market appeal.

Life ain’t easy in the smartphone game. Just ask Research In Motion, whose share of the U.S. smartphone market is taking a beating from all sides. In the summer of 2009, though, RIM was feeling more confident. The internal design team wanted some fresh ideas about how to evolve the BlackBerry Pearl product line, which maintained the physical keyboard that hardcore brand loyalists craved, but slimmed down the overall form factor into a shape that would broaden the brand’s appeal beyond the ranks of government employees and lawyers.

ChauhanStudio, a London-based design agency, was hired to create some concept designs. After 12 weeks of work, Tej Chauhan and his team delivered physical mockups of a design called the BlackBerry Urraco—named after a Lamborghini. You can see why: the phone’s angular-but-flowing profile looks a lot like its namesake. It has a physical keyboard, but no ugly keys—just a flexible membrane that illuminates when the phone is activated, which provides haptic feedback when pressed.

Even though it’s two and a half years old, it looks fresh and innovative. Its silhouette is bold and unique, and yet, just familiar enough to be recognizable as unmistakably "BlackBerry." RIM never produced it. Was that a mistake?

"This was always a concept project, not for production," Chauhan tells Co.Design. "BlackBerry was doing really well at the time we took this on. They’d already had the next-gen Pearl phones designed. What they wanted was some sort of idea of where that category of phones could go after that generation. When you think 'BlackBerry,' you think 'a tool for work.' This was an opportunity to break that cycle visually."

Chauhan’s approach involved "dial[ing] in enough BlackBerry design DNA to be still recognizable as a BlackBerry product, while really seeing how we could push the boundaries." That meant combining traditionally masculine and feminine attributes, "hard and soft aspects at the same time, edges and angles and curves."

It also meant preserving the all-important (at that time) physical keyboard while updating its appearance to reflect the emergence of sheer, glassy touchscreen phones. "Our 'hidden-to-lit’ approach, was about trying to create a memorable silhouette without visual interference from physical keys," Chauhan explains. "Our designs used a flexible membrane: they weren’t separated keys, but you’d still get a haptic response. When the product was switched off, you wouldn’t know it was a keyboard, but they’d light up and become visible when you turned it on. That let us achieve a very clean read when the product was off, like a black liquid pool that tips over the edges of the phone."

Joel Blair, designer of his own line of Detraform phones, praises the Urraco concept. "It doesn’t follow or build on Apple’s designs. As an object, it’s superior to the iPhone and looks more functional as a phone," he tells Co.Design. "RIM had a game changer on their hands but they decided to produce more of the same unappealing products. We all know what’s happening to RIM now with mass layoffs and service outages."

So could something like the Urraco really have rewritten the last two years of RIM’s history? Anyone can speculate. And there are probably myriad reasons—not all of them unreasonable, perhaps—why RIM couldn’t or wouldn’t have tried to bring an Urraco-like design to market. "Sometimes we know that we’re being asked to do something that’s going to be a roadmap for future production, and sometimes just for general inspiration. This was the latter," Chauhan reiterates. "We believe wholeheartedly in what we delivered, but would it have made a difference about where RIM is now? Who knows."

"It certainly would have generated some positive publicity for them, maybe engage with a different sector," he continues. "I think BlackBerry has been fantastic at making business-focused tools, and a broader, younger audience was already beginning to embrace the BlackBerry brand anyway. I just don’t believe the design language was quite geared to that audience. I’d have loved to see the Urraco launched. It would certainly have generated some interest. That’s what I believe—we wouldn’t have done it otherwise."

[hat tip to Joel Blair]

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  • phuong

    ummm, i thought the point of real button is because they are tactile and thats why it diff to iPhone virtual keypad, if its flushed behind a membrane it defeat that function. I can't imagine ever using a real button mob anymore. Virtual buttons are so useful and not taking up  un-needed space, and quicker to type.

  • Viktor Grjaznov

    Great concept, very nice shapes, and realistic implementation.

    But we all know what happened to BB Storm - grand fail from BB to implement touchscreen technology into they old designs. I think it's too late for BB to change anything. 

  • GentleYang

    So many ios and android device .... 
    We need special stuff like nokia n9, and this one from BB !!!

  • Royalphin

    Interestingly Blackberry is doing quite well here in Dubai, and is seen as a social tool for teenagers, and youngsters, just like RIM wanted. It didn't do much, the BBM social packages as well as phones are way under-priced, compared to the data packages for the iPhone, Android, and WP7, and boom! it's a success. 

  • Douglas tr0n Soltys

    A cool looking phone, but honestly, not many people want a Pearl form-factor anymore. Just look at the number of carriers that picked up the last model.

  • Steven H.

    that would be talking about iPod as a game changer, without talking about what problems it solves and the benefit of iTunes ecosystem that it came with. (it really is merely a cool looking hard drive that plays mp3 and video technically and there are hundreds if not thousands of other devices that does that)

  • Steven H.

    not saying that it is not innovative, it is possible (as porsche was saved somewhat by cayenne, and apple somewhat saved by iPod). but as a mobile phone maker, what they needed was more than a cosmetic injection. or a technology innovation, the article talks about keyboard membrane and dynamic design, but nothing about UI or UX and or the actual problem that BB was facing or values to customer, mere "features" not "benefits". Which could have been discussed when the concept was delivered, but in this article, no.

  • Hailey Crider

    You are all saying it's not innovative, and while I agree, think about if it launched two years ago... it might have been more innovative then. It could have opened a door of opportunity.

  • Andrew | Redtype

    Alexander, if you compare apples to apples (no pun intended) wow the design is pretty slick! :) Sure beats my current BB Curve! :)

  • DOmega

    No.  Because the software would have still been the same garbage.  People need to start looking at what really defines the products.  Which isn't marketing and looks.

  • Farmok

    I would say a change like this would have save Blackberry only because this would have changed the culture and direction of the company from one entirely focused on business needs to one that is open to catering to a wider customer base.

  • Chandrakant Redican

    I agree that only the model would not have been enough to change the fortunes of RIM. But what this Design had was a starting point- where a the soul of a new design could have entered RIM. It could have been the beginning of redesigning blackberry right from the OS itself. But Kudos to Chauhan and co to have delivered a beautiful design.

  • galm666

    This wouldn't have saved the Blackberry brand, but it would definitely help open its image from what it's now forever stuck with. It could've opened the door for more everyday user phones, and RIM could be in the race for dominant mobile device with Android, iPhone/iOS, and Windows Mobile. 

    If this was released now, it'd be out of date, and if it was released in 2009, it'd still be dated because of the keyboard design. If it came with a competitive OS, and a touchscreen interface, the other, rather nice features of this phone would probably make it shine.

  • Kardiogramm

    Design is more than hardware, it’s the software too. You can’t create a compelling user experience without focusing on both and how they function as a whole. 

  • DavidARosen

    Not too innovative.  In fact, who is able to use those multiple character keys?  They need more than this...

  • steven h.

    having worked on concept phone and even a color tablet concept for blackberry in 2009, I don't think that they'd be saved by a single phone, what they needed was an operating system (blackberry didn't have a complete O/S by then, was just a mobile interface with back end support). and a whole eco system to catch up to, that was being developed at apple extensively under cover. they were just late to the game that's all.. after they had realize what should have been done, it was too late. it was more like the change with iOS happened too quick, it simply diminished the what everyone else was doing.