In the world of federal employees and Bluetooth-clad M&A bankers, BlackBerry smartphone design is king. But outside John McCain’s Senate office bathroom, the general public has been far less receptive to RIM, a company that’s almost void of leadership, and that’s lost tens of billions of dollars in market value and suffered plummeting market share at the hands of Apple and Google.
So it’s no surprise that one of the latest phones RIM is touting—the BlackBerry P’9981—is a cluttered slab of metal with more keys than a church organ. Not even its design partnership with Porsche could save this ($1,800!) device, which launched recently in the U.S. and begins shipping overseas this week. It perfectly captures BlackBerry’s outmoded design thinking, and today, we finally have proof of just how out of touch the company is with the wants of modern-day consumers.
Earlier this week, concept designs for the original "Google Phone" leaked in the search giant’s legal battle with Oracle—and the design looks tellingly similar to the P’9981 and many of BlackBerry’s other form factors. This is remarkable for two reasons: Not only because Google designed this BlackBerry-like prototype in 2006—a half-dozen years before the P’9981 would hit market—but because Google ultimately decided not to ship devices based on this prototype.
Google and its Android partners smartly realized the world was drifting away from keyboards, and its hardware design followed suit. Now, like Apple, Android and Windows smartphone makers are trying to eliminate as many buttons as possible to let the touch screen and software do all the work—it’s been rumored that Apple might even nix the one remaining button on its iPhone.
RIM, on the other hand, seems intent on jamming as many buttons onto the device as physically possible, which makes the hardware experience about as pleasing as using a TI-89 calculator. In the ideal BlackBerry world, I imagine devices would likely come with a separate numpad to entice customers in the accounting industry.
In March, newly appointed RIM CEO Thorston Heins said the company would exit the consumer market, and refocus on its enterprise business. Better late than never: BlackBerry’s addiction to QWERTY has hindered the company’s consumer appeal. With barely an inch or two of screen real estate, navigation on BlackBerrys has always been a pain, and the potential for app development has been terribly limited.
In 2006, Google was clearly toying with how to fit alt keys and scroll wheels onto its prototype—and the company certainly dodged a bullet by deciding to take a different path.