No, tiny keypads aren't becoming cool again

You might think BlackBerry's KeyOne and the Nokia 3310 are the start of a renaissance for physical keypads on our phones, but you'd be wrong.

170104 blackberry 1
Credit: Magdalena Petrova

So when did Mobile World Congress turn into Mobile World Classic? While the LG G6 and Moto G5s created a healthy amount of buzz in Barcelona this year, the hottest gadgets weren’t the usual cutting-edge marvels. They were retro-flavored releases that brought back a feature long relegated to the technology graveyard: tiny keys.

Now, a certain amount of nostalgia-driven excitement is understandable. I’ll admit that the new Nokia 3310 stirred something in me that none of the glass-and-metal handsets did, but we’re not about to start seeing Samsung slap a keyboard on the Note8. The Palm Treo isn’t walking through the door.

There’s a reason why the few phones with keypads are relegated to the most out-of-the-way corners of the Verizon store. No one wants them.

The key to failure

BlackBerry’s comeback with the KeyOne might make for feel-good headlines, but let’s not forget that BlackBerry has an effective zero percent market share. That works out to around 200,000 customers around the world who were willing to pay for a BlackBerry phone last year.

Blackberry Passport BlackBerry

Sales of the BlackBerry Passport weren’t exactly brisk last year.

Granted, most of those purchased were likely the Passport and Priv, both of which have hardware keyboards, but those numbers make drops in the bucket look like a deluge. The Priv was supposed to be BlackBerry’s big comeback phone, the answer to all of those users who supposedly wanted the feel of a keyboard with the touch-screen Android experience. Clearly, that market was grossly overestimated.

So why are we falling for it again? The BlackBerry KeyOne, a phone that’s so proud of its keyboard it made it part of its name, is as likely to generate sales as Samsung is to ship the Galaxy S8 with Android Messages. To people of a certain age, the physical keyboard might represent the pinnacle of mobile advancement, but most of us want nothing to do with it.

That’s not to say the KeyOne isn’t a good phone. The keyboard has been upgraded with things like swipe typing and smart suggestions, and I’ll even predict that it will generate a bunch of stellar reviews for its concept, with headlines like “BlackBerry is back,” and “Move over Samsung, here comes BlackBerry.” But a year from now the $550 KeyOne will be at the bottom of the bargain bin. And something tells me there won’t be a KeyTwo.

Snake in the grass

I don’t mean to pick on BlackBerry here (although they are an easy target). There were quite a few keypad-based phones and gadgets at MWC—the dual-booting Android/Linux PDA Gemini has already rocketed past its $200,000 Indiegogo goal—but the most hyped by far was the Nokia 3310, a modern spin on the classic candy bar phone that everyone wanted in 2000.

3310 colors Nokia

The Nokia 3310 is a modern spin on the retro classic.

From the fawning at MWC, it might as well have been the Galaxy S8. It plays Snake! The battery lasts a month on standby! It’s just $50! It comes in yellow! But the bottom line is that the 3310 is mostly a publicity stunt. HMD told me that the 3310 will “roll out to markets where a 2.5G device is demanded by our customers and consumers.” Translation: Most people won’t be able to buy one.

And even if you manage to score one on eBay or Craigslist, you likely won’t be able to use it in the U.S. The 3310 utilizes 900MHz and 1,800MHz bands, which rely on a 2G network (think Edge). So if you were hoping to buy a Nokia 3310 and use it as a distraction-free weekend phone you’re out of luck unless HMD builds a model with LTE connectivity, or at least a bunch of 3G bands.

3310 art Nokia

The Nokia 3310 likely won’t be available in the U.S. despite its irreverent marketing campaign.

So, with all that retro charm, who’s the 3310 for? If it’s for emerging markets, there’s already the Android One program, which offers modern conveniences like fingerprint scanners and 5-inch screens for around $100. And there are any number of Snake games you can download for them in the Play Store.

Space invader

Even if you overlook things like stuck keys, dust buildup, and general malfunctions, the physical keyboard has another unfortunate side effect: a smaller screen.

keyone front BlackBerry

Don’t be fooled—that’s only a 4.5-inch screen on the BlackBerry KeyOne.

Nevermind the Nokia 3310’s 2.4-inch display. The KeyOne is a normal sized phone, just 5mm shorter than the Pixel XL, which is fine except for one thing. It only has a 4.5-inch display. That’s easily one of the smallest Android screens on the market, but you’re not getting a phone that lends itself to one-handed operation. Consider that the LG G6 fits a 5.7-inch screen in a body that’s actually smaller than the KeyOne.

In fact, the KeyOne is actually designed for use with two hands, given the thumb-friendly keyboard. So not only do you get a much smaller screen, you also get a phone the occupies all of your dexterity. Is a physical keyboard really worth giving up so much?

moto keyboard mod Indiegogo

If you really want a keyboard on your Moto Z, you can support this Indiegogo campaign.

And if you think a full-sized keyboard this is just a BlackBerry phenomenon, there’s also a physical keyboard mod for the Moto Z that just just hit Indiegogo, which adds a 5-row slide-out QWERTY keyboard that can be tilted up to 45 degrees. And let’s not forget that Samsung was selling a keyboard case for the Note 5 and S6 Edge.

Now, I can kind of understand the logic in having a keyboard as an attachment that can be easily removed, but I still fail to see how it enhances the experience. Maybe some people with nimble thumbs will be able to type faster, but for most of us, a virtual, there-when-you-need-it keyboard is preferable.

Movable type

As I was writing this piece I came across a timely tweet from smartphone leaker extraordinaire Evan Blass that wasn’t about the Galaxy S8 for once. It was a picture of the Sony Xperia X1 captioned with “G.O.A.T.” (Greatest of all time). So I asked him about it.

evan blass twitter @evleaks

Evan Blass made his name leaking images of phones with giant screens, but he still has a soft spot for handsets with hardware keyboards.

“Starting with the Palm Treo 600, all of my initial smartphones had hardware keyboards,” he said. “In fact, after that Treo, I owned four QWERTY WinMo sliders from HTC alone (if you count the X1 as HTC-built)—and then an LG WinMo slider after that.”

Blass, who uses a Galaxy S6 these days, says he probably would buy an X1 today “assuming that it maintained an acceptably slim profile.” (The X1 was more than a half-inch thick.) He said he appreciates the “tactility” of a real keyboard and finds himself making far fewer mistakes than with the virtual ones.

keyone keyboard BlackBerry

BlackBerry wants you to believe the KeyOne harkens the return of the hardware keyboard.

So there are some keyboard fans out there. I just don’t think there are enough of them to bring BlackBerry back to life. I’m not even sure there’s enough interest to push the Moto Keyboard Mod past its $100,000 fund-raising goal. The reason touch-screen phones overtook keyboard ones so easily was because there was very little resistance from users, Blass’s opinion aside.

In fact, the only keyboard that interested me at MWC was the Galaxy Tab S3’s. Tablet keyboards allow for touch-typing with all your fingers, a clear improvement over on-screen swiping or thumb-tapping. Keyboards certainly have their place—it’s just not attached to the bottom of our smartphones.

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