In a market without keyboards, BlackBerry presses on

Early smartphone users cursed the awkwardness of software keyboards. But for BlackBerry to come back, it will need to crack a market that has embraced typing on glass.

BlackBerry Key2 hands-on

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Once, all of the leading handsets in the smartphone market -- Blackberrys, Treos and Windows Mobile devices -- featured keyboards. More than a decade after the iPhone, though, the market has spoken for maximum glass on the face of a smartphone, even to the point of eliminating navigation buttons and fingerprint readers. As for keyboards, everyone but the most hardcore loyalists have been lured away from hardware as a number of trends have evolved.

Software keyboards that have grown with smartphone displays can now accommodate even the least dainty fingers. The advent of swipe-gesture typing and autocomplete have further closed if not eliminated the gap when it comes to raw input speed. For those willing to trade a bit of mobility for comfort, folding Bluetooth keyboards have improved dramatically. And for a new generation of smartphone users, the importance of text efficiency has declined relative to emoji, GIFs and video chat.

key2-and-keyone-keyboards.jpg

Nonetheless, a handful of holdouts have emerged in the past year to provide an option for those who seek a physical keyboard. Planet Computing's Gemini, an Android-based reincarnation of the Psion 5 -- often considered the best touch-type experience on a pocketable device -- has begun shipping. While optimized for use as a clamshell as opposed to a handset, its cellular variant can nonetheless can be pressed against one's cheek and used for voice calls. In place of a screen for Caller ID, it includes an LED light array to allow for customized caller notifications.

Meanwhile, a crowdfunded Moto Mod keyboard I wrote about last May would add a horizontal sliding keyboard for Moto Z devices. It creates what might have been the future of the brand's Droid phone franchise if Verizon had continued supporting each designs. It still hasn't entered mass production despite being funded a year ago.

But the the BlackBerry brand, which was recently "reborn" in the form of the Key2. remains the strongest backer of the physical keyboard, At the launch of the new BlackBerry, TCL Mobile, which now produces BlackBerry smartphones, talked about how the keyboard has been the optimal input device on the desktop and there's no reason we should settle for anything less on mobile. That's a tough argument to accept given that -- even in the heyday of BlackBerry -- the keyboard was used much differently than how a full-sized keyboard would be.

Nonetheless, if all the character keys on the keyboard weren't enough, the Key2 features a new one -- a task-switching key that allows the instant activation of apps by pressing a letter after it. While it seems like a great timesaver that extends the value of a keyboard, it's hardly justification for a keyboard per se and is something that could be approximated using a shortcut key and a screen overlay of frequent apps.

TCL Mobile noted that the keyboard on the BlackBerry was 20 percent larger than on its predecessor. However, in trying out the device briefly after its introduction, I was struck by how small the buttons felt even though I could remember a time when I was relatively proficient on a BlackBerry keyboard. The difficult adjustment period from tactile to glass keyboard was now poised for reversal. Indeed, one of the company representatives who had had more time to adjust back to the physical keyboard recommended three days to acclimate again.

One thing was sure familiar. While the keyboard may have seemed cramped, typing on it still felt better than glass even after all these years. That said, the greater force required for depressing the keys might lead to greater fatigue after extended typing sessions.

The BlackBerry legacy includes more than just physical keyboard. Hence, at the launch of the Key2, there was much discussion about other BlackBerry attributes such as advanced security and long battery life. But without the keyboard, the new BlackBerry on a much less solid competitive footing versus Samsung, which also extols those attributes. The Key2 will need to heat up a market of fans who once vowed to hold onto a physical keyboard with their cold, dead hands.

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