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I come not to praise QWERTY, but to bury it

The once-vaunted smartphone keyboard is the victim of a fickle market

Sean Hollister a senior editor and founding member of The Verge who covers gadgets, games, and toys. He spent 15 years editing the likes of CNET, Gizmodo, and Engadget.

This article was originally published on November 15th, 2013. We have revived it today in light of BlackBerry's declaration that it's getting out of the business of designing and building its own phones. As the last holdout to favor physical keyboards on smart mobile devices, BlackBerry's outsourcing move today marks one of the final milestones in the demise of the physical keyboard. So here, once more, is a salute to this now historic input device.

I bought a Droid 4 twenty-one months ago.

As a devout user of physical QWERTY keyboards, I'm pretty sure I'm screwed.

My two-year contract expires in just three more months, but I don't know if my phone will make it. I touch-type all my interviews into my Droid, but it’s simply not reliable anymore. There isn't a day that goes by without some app experiencing crippling slowdown. The phone just can't seem to hold a charge. And it's not like I can just go out and upgrade, even if I had the cash: there isn't a single desirable smartphone with a physical QWERTY keyboard on the horizon. Over the last few months, Motorola announced the Moto X, the Droid Ultra, the Droid Maxx, and the Droid Mini, but there was no Droid 5 to be had.

Isn't it strange how all the high-end smartphones with keyboards have up and disappeared?

Recently, I met Doug Kaufman, manager of handset strategy for Sprint. He had a story to share.


The QWERTY champion

"For years, I've been the QWERTY champion within Sprint," Kaufman began.

"Sprint's had one of the largest bases of QWERTY going back to the whole messaging phenomenon ... at one point we were selling 40-percent messaging phones," he explained right off the bat.

When Android came along and smartphones truly began to take off, handsets with QWERTY keyboards did very well for Sprint. The Samsung Moment, the EVO Shift, the Epic 4G: "We sold multimillions of those," said Kaufman.

Palm_treo_pro_sprint-758340"It was a big party and nobody came."

All the research told Sprint that it was on the right track, that physical keyboards were a differentiator that would help the carrier sell phones. When Sprint conducted surveys, it found that 70 to 80 percent of respondents with side-sliding physical QWERTY keyboards reported that it was easy to type words and letters. By contrast, touchscreen-only devices typically polled under 50 percent.

"The best [touch-only device] we ever had was the Galaxy Note II," said Kaufman, on which 54 percent of respondents said typing was easy. "The iPhone 5 was around 48 percent, just to give you a sense."

And for a time, it seemed like that typing experience would actually drive future purchases. When Sprint asked customers whether they'd buy a physical keyboard the next time around — not so long ago — 75 percent of existing QWERTY users said they would. Even one quarter of iPhone users, and 30 percent of Galaxy Note II users, said they'd prefer a physical QWERTY keyboard on their next smartphone.

"So we had all that data, and we said 'Look, there's still the demand for QWERTY.' And then we went out and built the LG Mach and the Photon Q."

"It was a big party and nobody came." So much for surveys.

What happened? People started buying phones they could recognize, according to Kaufman. He believes the reason that QWERTY phones stopped selling has little to do with large screens and everything to do with a trend towards "iconic" handsets: flagship devices which boast fancy designs and giant advertising campaigns.

"At the end of the day, what happened is two things. Half of your customers buy the iPhone. All those people who said, "Oh, I'm going to buy QWERTY," boom, take them out of the equation."

"And then as you probably know, the market has moved to everyone buying iconic phones... people see the advertising, they walk in, they want to buy a Galaxy S III," says Kaufman. "Or an HTC One," he adds suddenly.


One and done

It's ironic that Kaufman would mention HTC. The Taiwanese company built a good part of its reputation on QWERTY handsets — before it decided to put all its eggs into one iconic basket. After years of manufacturing tiny Windows Mobile typing machines, HTC built the very first Android smartphone, the T-Mobile G1. If a cellular carrier needed a QWERTY phone to offer their customers, HTC was all too happy to provide, manufacturing devices like the Evo Shift 4G, the G2, and T-Mobile’s entire myTouch line.

But in 2012, HTC decided to focus on just "one" smartphone at a time. The HTC One series was the company’s attempt to make its products a little more iconic, a little more like Samsung's successful Galaxy line. The announcement came with bad news for keyboard fans, though: HTC designer Claude Zellweger explained that the firm was moving away from QWERTY as a whole.

"We have texting, emoticons, voice-to-text and other such methods of communication that have abbreviated our exchanges."

Why did HTC abandon the physical keyboard? Certainly, design played a role. HTC design director Jonah Becker tells me that sliding QWERTY devices like my Droid are typically "significantly thicker" and harder to slip into a pocket, and that "the moving parts result in a phone that doesn't feel as solid as a monolithic bar-type phone."

But surprisingly, Becker tells me that the physical construction wasn't the primary justification: "The real reason is not design, but the changes in behavior." He explains how far virtual keyboards have come, how children are growing up with touchscreens, and how written communication has become less critical for the smartphone audience. If a picture tells a thousand words, how many can you convey with a Vine or a YouTube clip?

"We have texting, emoticons, voice-to-text and other such methods of communication that have abbreviated our exchanges. This all makes a physical QWERTY less important," says Becker.

Motorola, the manufacturer of my Droid 4, agrees. "There became this interesting tension where people wanted to see information, but they didn't need input as much," Motorola SVP Rick Osterloh tells me.



A forced choice?

I wasn't totally buying that the world abandoned the idea of physical keyboards overnight. It seemed more likely to me that the cellular industry never gave them a choice.

For the past several years, buying a smartphone with a QWERTY keyboard has meant settling for less than the latest and greatest technology on the market. When my Droid 4 launched in February 2012, it had already been completely outspecced and outclassed by devices with better screens. Arguably, there hasn't been a top-tier smartphone with a physical keyboard since the Samsung Epic 4G set a new high bar for Android devices in August, 2010. The carriers had decided to treat QWERTY sliders as messaging phones for teens rather than tools of the elite, and adjusted their asks and advertising respectively.

Who killed the QWERTY keyboard? The usual suspect is the HD screen. Visual real estate has become a focal point for the industry. And yet, as screens got wider, they became harder to hold, so manufacturers made them thinner to compensate. Thin and wide became the goal, and then the norm. "We used to want a TV for these types of experiences, but now we expect a cinematic experience on a phone," says HTC's Becker.

Who killed the QWERTY keyboard? The usual suspect is the HD screen

And that's where you run into trouble with physical keyboards, according to Motorola's Rick Osterloh. Keyboards "make it so you have to cut the screen size down, or have a slider form factor which adds a considerable amount of cost, thickness, and weight to the product."

"There's really no getting around that because it's another mechanical part ... it ends up being fundamentally thicker by just a few millimeters," he tells me.

Still, all of this assumes that smartphone buyers would actually rather have a top-tier smartphone with a large HD screen instead of a top-tier smartphone with a smaller screen and a keyboard. In the past couple of years, that's never even been an option.


The niche market

But what if it were? Would manufacturers and carriers consider building an iconic phone with top-of-the-line specs, a nice HD screen, and a physical QWERTY keyboard that slides out from underneath?

Even Sprint's QWERTY champion Doug Kaufman doesn't think that's likely to happen. "I think there would be a segment out there that would buy it, but it's getting smaller every day ... [the OEMs] want a thin, sexy device to put on advertising," he explains. "I think the ship has really sailed on QWERTY."

Q10_black_front"We saw what happened to the manufacturer who thought different."

For their part, HTC and Motorola say the keyboard is simply not that important. "I use the HTC One now, and can't imagine going back to a physical keyboard," says Becker, adding that HTC has to stay focused to achieve its design aims. "I don't think there are roadblocks preventing us from building a QWERTY phone at any price point. It's that the behaviors and technologies have made them less of a priority," he explains. "The combination of [voice dictation and predictive software keyboards] reduces the imperative to have a physical keyboard for a consumer," says Motorola's Rick Osterloh.

Is the QWERTY so incredibly niche that manufacturers are willing to let BlackBerry have that market unchallenged? One anonymous industry insider hints that BlackBerry's misfortunes might actually be part of the problem. "Believe me, this is a game of volume... if they thought [QWERTY] would be a meaningful niche, it would not go ignored. We saw what happened to the manufacturer who thought different."

Still, when I push Sprint's Kaufman just a little bit further, he relents. "It'd need to be an HTC One Q, a Galaxy S4 Q... [a flagship phone] with top-of-the-line specs."

"If you could have a Galaxy S4 with a QWERTY, I think people would buy that."

If any company were to try QWERTY again, Samsung would seem to be the most likely candidate. Though some have accused the Korean manufacturer of copying competitors, the company has also shown that it's willing to go to substantial lengths to make its smartphones appear bigger and bolder than the competition. It was Samsung that pushed screen sizes to a crazy 6.3 inches, and Samsung who successfully brought the stylus back from the dead. Now that the company already has a screen size for every pocket and purse, perhaps the company could use its marketing prowess to push the physical keyboard once more.

I selfishly hope so.