BlackBerry’s Q10 launch puts typing preferences to the test

It has long been the key to BlackBerry’s popularity with core audience, but as far as explaining why, even Andrew MacLeod can’t quite put his finger on it.

“I’ve talked to some who are in their 50s, 60s and 70s who love it, but I’ve also talked to teens and college kids who prefer it too,” says BlackBerry’s managing director for Canada. “I haven’t really found a particular demographic.”

He is referring, of course, to the BlackBerry keyboard, which gets a new lease on life Wednesday with the launch of the BlackBerry Q10. Whereas the release of the Z10 was intended to show BlackBerry could keep pace with the likes of iOS and Android-based touchscreen smartphones from Apple and Samsung, the Q10 is the former Research In Motion’s way of reassuring customers it hasn’t walked away from its history. That’s certainly how MacLeod positions it.

“I think what we’re really doing here is giving back to that ardent group of BlackBerry fans who really love that QWERTY keyboard,” he says.

Despite all the hype and discussion around the Z10, the Q10 could be the more important element in BlackBerry’s attempt at a commercial comeback. For one thing, it has a relatively hefty price tag of $199 in Canada, $250 when it goes on sale in the U.S. later this month. At U.K.-based department store Selfridges, meanwhile, the Q10 was being offered for 580 pounds, or nearly $900.

Why would people pay that much for a keyboard-based device? I think in corporate environments – where BlackBerry was once king – it may have something to do with the still-gradual evolution of enterprise applications from the desktop to mobile form factors. You can easily play a game on a touchscreen device, but business software tools often require more text input, which means easier typing becomes critical. That could explain why Canadian Tire, which recently announced it would be making BlackBerry its device provider of choice, plans to offer a mix of Z10s and Q10s to its workforce.

“It’s all about the explosion of the enterprise applications,” agrees Mitchell Wolfe, director of products and solutions business marketing at Rogers Communications, which will be offering the Q10. “We’re talking about customer data, pricing information. Very core, sensitive material.”

Given the keyboard’s role at work, it might seem like a mistake to have launched the Z10 first, but MacLeod points to the traditionally sluggish pace of IT department upgrade cycles. “We launched the B10 platform a few months ago. They’ll take a number of months to soak and test a new platform before they start deploying it. That coincides with the launch of a Q10,” he says.

Wolfe agrees. There is a tremendous amount of business pent-up demand,” he says. “They’re been waiting for the launch of the Q10.”

BlackBerry will be offering a ton of shortcuts for regular users called “instant action” to help make typing even more fluid. As businesses develop more intuitive mobile user interfaces for their various tools, though, it’s uncertain whether smartphone customers will still treasure that keyboard experience.

If a mass transition from typing to tapping is really underway, BlackBerry is in the precarious position of trying to keep a strong position in both worlds. Apple doesn’t offer users these kind of choices. Neither do many other device makers. In appealing to both the touchscreen trailblazers and the keyboard die-hards, BlackBerry is going to have its hands full.

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