When a purported Porsche Design BlackBerry device first leaked last year, many quickly dismissed it — for a company in crisis, a lavish, over-designed rehash of the Bold seemed like the last thing RIM needed to be worrying about. As a longtime BlackBerry user myself, however, there was something about it that seemed "inherently BlackBerry," and the rumors were confirmed to be true when the device was officially unveiled in Dubai in late September. I was oddly intrigued by the polarizing device, but it took until CES this year to get my hands on one. I got to discuss the device with RIM's Senior VP of Design Todd Wood here at CES 2012 to get the back story on the collaboration — and some of the details may surprise you.
The concept of a $2,000 BlackBerry Bold is, to put it bluntly, nonsense — so how did the P'9981 come to be? Porsche Design had been selling feature phones in its retail outlets, but wanted to get start offering a smartphone as well. Juergen Gessler, Porsche Design's CEO, was an avid BlackBerry user — as were many other of the firm's execs — and so he contacted RIM to create a partnership that would infuse the workabout BlackBerry with Porsche's stark look and feel. Todd called the partnership an "experiment" and the two began collaborating on a device that would end up as the P'9981.
From the beginning, the device was not intended for mass distribution, so the companies prioritized its design and paid less attention to price. In other words, it's in Vertu territory — a weird place where the normal laws of functionality, capability, and "may the best product win" simply don't apply. It's a strong, even masculine device that feels sturdy in the hand — not to say any level of sturdiness can justify the stratospheric price. Currently on sale in Harrods in London and Dubai electronics stores, it's clearly a niche phone for a certain type of customer. The crazy type.
The main chassis is machined from a single piece of stainless steel, and it's far more angular and geometric than other BlackBerry phones. To aid with cellular reception, the bottom edge of the phone is actually crafted of a plastic material — but you wouldn't tell since it has the same metallic hue as the rest of the outer rail. The attention to detail here is much greater than a normal BlackBerry phone, so we'll have to credit that to Porsche Design's influence.
A black region on the front facade houses the bright, vibrant, 640 x 480 screen. Four glass buttons are arranged below it for Send, End, Menu, and Back, with the familiar four-way navigation button in the middle. Though it's similar in concept to the optical pad used on the more plebeian BlackBerry line, Wood insists that the P'9981's is unique in its use of a camera beneath flat glass to track movement. Speaking of the glass, it runs from edge to edge, and you can see just how much it's recessed from the rest of the front surface when you view it from the side. Above the display there's one more strip of stainless steel with a laser-engraved Porsche Design logo with BlackBerry silkscreened right beneath it.
We had to put the keyboard to the test — this is a BlackBerry, after all — and the P'9981's high-end clientele will be disappointed to learn that the 9900 still reigns supreme. Like the rest of the phone, the keyboard is made of metal and the keys have a nice clickiness to them, but it's nowhere near as fluid to type on as the current flagship Bold. It also has the same metallic frets that run between keys, but the angularity makes the keyboard a bit of a letdown. My first impression was rather negative — especially given my love of the 9900's keyboard — but after typing for a few minutes I was getting the hang of it.
The back battery cover is made of real leather and has a subtle BlackBerry logo, which serves to cover the removable battery. There's also a rectangular metal slab with holes for the 5-megapixel camera and LED flash with the P'9981 name engraved as well. It serves as a nice contrast to the metal and glass front, and I think a full steel enclosure would've been a bit too much (granted, "a bit too much" is an apt description for the P'9981 as a whole). To complete the customization, all of these devices will have special Porsche PINs that start with the letter P, topped off with a bespoke build of BlackBerry OS 7.
If there's a market for this phone, I don't know what it is; even at its completely unreasonable asking price, it can't possibly be a meaningful profit center in the quantities RIM and Porsche Design will likely sell. It feels like a device that James Bond would own, perhaps — only problem is, James Bond isn't real.
Chris Ziegler and Dieter Bohn contributed to this article