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In BlackBerry's future, keyboards may be an afterthought

Doug Gross, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • With the Z10, BlackBerry's iconic keyboard is gone
  • The click-clacking of keys has become a thing of the past on smartphones
  • BlackBerry says screen still has the feel of a BB keyboard
  • The new Q10, with keyboard, is a "retro play" some say

(CNN) -- If it doesn't sound off with that iconic click-clack keyboard sound, is it really a BlackBerry?

The company behind the former market-leading phone says yes. And it is betting a big stack of their dwindling chips that both new users and diehard "CrackBerry" devotees will agree.

On Wednesday, Research in Motion (who would simply be named BlackBerry by the time the event ended) unveiled BlackBerry 10, a top-to-bottom overhaul of its mobile operating system.

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With it came two new phones. One, the BlackBerry Q10, includes the physical keyboard that most users, or former users, consider virtually synonymous with the brand. But that one felt like little more than an afterthought.

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It was the Z10 -- a snazzy, touchscreen-only new phone -- that was used throughout the presentation to show off the system's new capabilities. And BlackBerry's website Wednesday was dominated with plugs for the Z10, while the Q10, like an embarrassing stepchild, was nowhere to be found.

Forget the Z10 simply having fewer buttons than older BlackBerrys. With no "home" button, it's got fewer than the iPhone and most popular Android phones, as well.

The Z10 isn't the first time BlackBerry has tried a keyboard-free device. But it's clear they're putting more stock in it than the ill-fated BlackBerry Storm, which hit an iPhone-dominated smartphone market with a resounding thud in 2008.

From 'CrackBerry' to 'depressing': The BlackBerry's 5-year fall

"The absolute best typing experience in the industry, period." That's how BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins touted his two new phones.

Specifically, with white virtual keys and a black background, it's one that will be familiar to users of other smartphones, who BlackBerry hopes to woo back home, as well as the brand's current fans.

"Everything just feels like a BlackBerry typing experience," said Vivek Bhardwaj, head of software at BlackBerry.

Kevin Michaluk, editor of BlackBerry fan site CrackBerry, says a touchscreen-only experience "may seem odd to some considering the majority of today's 78 million communication-hungry BlackBerry subscribers are using models with a physical keyboard."

But after demoing the device, he says he's sold.

"Now that we have logged some mileage on the BlackBerry Z10, we're getting it," Michaluk wrote Tuesday. "BlackBerry 10 has built a full touchscreen experience that even physical keyboard diehards will love."

5 things that could make BlackBerry 10 a hit

Function aside, experts say that in 2013 bringing a touchscreen device to the forefront was something BlackBerry had to do.

"The Q10 is really just a retro play to make sure they do not lose any of the 79 million users that still prefer the traditional BlackBerry keyboard," said Scott Snyder, co-founder of mobile-strategy firm Mobiquity and author of "The New World of Wireless: How to Compete in the 4G Revolution."

"The Z10 is really the future vision," he said.

The Z10 may not signal the end of the physical keyboard on smartphones, he said. But it could be the beginning of the end as the last holdout evolves.

"RIM was caught off guard by this. Now they are in the mainstream, with a touch interface, for the majority of the 1 billion smartphones in the world. Only a small segment of enterprise users will continue to stay on the traditional keyboard model out of habit."

Review: BlackBerry's Z10 and BB10 feel a generation late

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