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BlackBerry Renews Its Vows to the Smartphone Keyboard

BlackBerry Renews Its Vows to the Smartphone Keyboard

Photograph by Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Alicia Keys: out. Keyboards: back in.

Welcome to the new, new BlackBerry (BBRY).

Yesterday, less than a week after parting ways with erstwhile creative director Alicia Keys, new BlackBerry Chief Executive Officer John Chen indicated that the struggling Canadian smartphone maker is going back to its roots as part of an apparent broader strategic shift to refocus on business customers. In an interview with Bloomberg TV’s Jon Erlichman, Chen said the company will “predominantly” focus on smartphones with physical keyboards rather than touchscreens.

“I personally love the keyboards,” said Chen.

So do a lot of BlackBerry loyalists, who over the years have grown accustomed to having a physical keyboard on their smartphones on which to bang out e-mails and work memos—and who in recent years have often vocally bemoaned the company’s drift into touchscreen devices.

In December, BlackBerry announced a five-year deal to outsource the manufacturing and design of some of its smartphones to Foxconn (2354:TT). According to Chen, the first smartphone produced with Foxconn will feature a touch screen but in the future, physical keyboards are likely to dominate.

Chen’s comments come just days after BlackBerry filed a lawsuit alleging patent infringement against the Typo Keyboard, a snap-on keypad accessory for the iPhone (AAPL) which is set to make its debut at the CES conference this week.

Like all shrinking empires in hasty retreat, BlackBerry has difficult decisions to make regarding what territories to abandon and which ones to try to defend. Two months after taking over for former CEO Thorsten Heins, Chen has now revealed one place the company will make a stand.

If BlackBerry goes down, it will go down with all thumbs on deck, defending its claim as the once (and perhaps future) king of the smartphone keyboard.

Gillette is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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