When Research In Motion chief executive Thorsten Heins unveiled a prototype of the new BlackBerry 10 phone this week, it lacked a feature that has kept legions of users loyal to the platform: a physical keyboard.
At the BlackBerry World expo in Orlando, Florida, he showed off a sleek touch-screen device that more closely resembled an iPhone or Android smartphone than the keypad-equipped BlackBerrys of old.
While RIM still plans to produce models with keyboards, the demonstration was the biggest signal yet that the company was shifting to a touch-screen world.
RIM, which is counting on its redesigned BlackBerry 10 line-up to reverse a sales slump, faces a quandary. Smartphone users have embraced virtual keyboards, evidenced by Apple and Google accounting for more than 80 per cent of the market.
Even so, taking away RIM's physical keypad removes a feature that distinguishes it from the competition.
"Some will lament it, but others will embrace it," said Nigel Hughes, a vice-president in charge of sales at SteelCloud, which builds BlackBerry-compatible security software and hardware for customers such as the US Department of Defence.
"It's a recognition that the future is without a keyboard."
RIM could use a boost. Sales at the Waterloo, Ontario-based company tumbled 25 per cent last quarter, with US revenue plummeting more than 50 per cent.
And RIM's share of the smartphone subscribers shrank to 12 per cent in the period, making it a distant third in the industry, according to ComScore. Google's Android operating system accounted for 51 per cent of the market, while Apple's iPhone had 31 per cent.
The iPhone's debut in 2007, followed by Android devices a year later, showed that users were willing to embrace phones without a keyboard.
While RIM made a foray into the touch-screen market in 2008 with the BlackBerry Storm, most of its line-up kept the keypads. The Storm was criticised for buggy software and was outsold by the BlackBerry Curve and Bold models, which both feature keyboards.
For Mousser Jerbi, a longtime BlackBerry fan, the new prototype's lack of a keyboard is a deal killer.
Jerbi plans to keep his current BlackBerry Bold rather than upgrade to the touch-screen phone. The keyboard makes it easy to tap out emails - something that sets the old BlackBerry apart from a sea of iPhones and Android devices.
Jerbi, who runs corporate sales for Groupe Tunisie Telecom, Tunisia's biggest wireless carrier, is sceptical the new model will catch on with loyalists. Even the name "BlackBerry" evokes the device's black keys, which resemble seeds.
"Getting rid of the keyboard is risky," said Jerbi, who once tried switching to an iPhone, only to switch back. "Especially for the email user, the BlackBerry experience is very good."
RIM began releasing the prototype to developers this week, saying it would be representative of the device's hardware - even if the final design is different. Features, such as word prediction, will make it easy for BlackBerry fans to adjust to a touch screen, Heins said.
Scrapping the physical keyboard from the initial BlackBerry 10 device will put it in closer competition with the iPhone and Android models, such as the Samsung Galaxy S. That could be tough for RIM, said Stephen Beck, a managing partner at the technology consulting firm CG42 in Wilton, Connecticut.
"If you're forcing a migration to non-keyboard, you're going to get people asking, 'What's the best of breed of those devices?"' Beck said. "Given the momentum of iPhone and Android, that's going to be a tough argument for RIM to win."
Michael Clewley, director of handheld software product management at RIM, reassured BlackBerry World attendees that the company will eventually offer something for everyone with the BlackBerry 10 operating system. That may include slide-out keyboards, as well as traditional keypads.
"RIM has always had a wide range of devices," he said yesterday. "We're dedicated to having a form factor that fits your needs."
- BloombergBy Hugo Miller