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]