The first Blackberry 10 phone, which will launch in the fourth quarter of 2012, will be touchscreen only, a spokeswoman told the Associated Press. The company declined to say when a physical keyboard model might be available.
The news isn't all that surprising, since the Dev Alpha device on which RIM is demonstrating Blackberry 10 also uses a touchscreen instead of physical keys. Moreover, the virtual keyboard in Blackberry 10 is one of the operating system's featured attractions. While the user types, suggested words appear above the next letters in the sequence, and the user can flick upwards from that letter to automatically complete the word.
Still, some industry analysts are questioning the move. "The physical keyboard is the most dominant item that separates out Research In Motion from its competitors," Colin Gillis, an analyst with BGC Financial, told the AP. "If you are not playing to your historical strengths you may find it more difficult to get traction."
I'll point out the obvious rebuttal: What traction, exactly, does RIM have right now? The rest of the industry is moving away from physical keyboards, and most consumers are happily headed along for the ride. Apple's iPhone is doing just fine without the extra bulk of hardware keys. HTC says it has no plans to revisit the form factor, and there are very few high-end Android phones with physical keyboards left on the market.
RIM might feel like it owes physical keyboards to its loyal users and enterprise customers. As CEO Thorstein Heins said in May, it "would be wrong--just plain wrong" to lose focus on physical keyboards. He's probably right.
But if those keyboard-loving customers haven't already jumped ship, I doubt a couple of months is going to make a huge difference. It's better for RIM to focus one piece of hardware--one that represents where the industry is headed--than launch Blackberry 10 with a lackluster keyboard model just to appease a fraction of its shrinking customer base.