I remember when one of the world's leading smartphone makers pretty much bet the company that its physical keyboard would save the company from the onslaught of superior devices that relied on touchscreen typing. BlackBerry lost that bet, of course, and physical keyboards haven't garnered much attention in the last few years.
See also: A Requiem for BlackBerry
But last week, Samsung trotted out a time machine, and introduced a snap-on physical keyboard accessory for its new Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Note 5 Smartphones. By all accounts, the new devices are exemplary in many ways (and in the changing landscape of smartphone economics, any high-priced new flagship phone had better be awesome). But for me, several factors made the physical keyboard accessory far more interesting than the brand new phones it attaches to.
- That a snap-on plastic device is the dominant conceptual legacy of BlackBerry shows just how far the company has fallen from its perch atop the smartphone market.
- That Samsung would even think to develop and market such a device demonstrates a certain amount of desperation for the company that ships more smartphones than any other.
- That a feature once deemed essential by smartphone users is now a laughable afterthought is an object lesson in how quickly things can change.
Is a physical keyboard still useful for smartphones?
I haven't had a chance to test this device, and initial reviews have been mixed at best. But even assuming it works perfectly and delivers a smartphone typing experience every bit as good as a 2007 BlackBerry Curve, it's not going to change much of anything. I guarantee that relatively few people are going to buy one, and it's not going to spur competing phone makers—or even phone accessory makers—to start an add-on physical keyboard arms race.
It's just not going to happen. People, especially young people, have moved on. They not only tolerate touchscreen keyboards, they actually prefer them. First of all, new software like Swype and Swiftkey let touchscreen typists do things that physical keyboards simply can't match. And smartphone users are increasingly driven by slim, sleek form factors, and don't want all those messy bumps on their devices, much less a bulky add-on.
Sure, plenty of people keep their smartphones in cases that add size and weight, but hardly anyone uses external keyboards with them. Heck, even tablets don't often get attached to external keyboards.
A waste of space?
Most importantly, who would want to devote half of the device's precious screen real estate to a physical keyboard that would just get in the way when using apps that don't need a keyboard—or don't need a keyboard all the time? Sure, you slip off the physical keyboard, and even attach it to the back of your phone when you're not using it. But that's a fairly involved process compared to how modern smartphone software automatically and seamlessly shows you the keyboard when you need it, and hides it when you don't.
That ability is key to maximizing the value of a small device like a smartphone, something BlackBerry clearly didn't understand back in the day. Unless you spend whole sessions on your phone doing nothing but typing, the physical keyboard is going to be a net annoyance, no matter how much it speeds up your typing. And even when you are typing, the rise of Twitter and texting make composing long involved emails on your phone significantly less common.
Obviously, coming out with this optional accessory can't actually hurt Samsung, but it's hard to see how it could help much, either. In fact, in 2015, it's hard to see the point of the thing at all.
Still, I bet there have been times you've wished your smartphone had a "real" keyboard. But you know what they say – be careful what you wish for, you might get it!