The End Is Near for BlackBerry's Trackball

"They need them fixed—'Now!'" says a repairman

The BlackBerry (RIMM) trackball, introduced in 2006, has always had issues. It accumulates grit and gunk. Commerce slows, communication cuts off.

Still, millions love their trackballs.

In 2008, Tony Naftchi lost his job as an auto-finance manager and started from a small office on New York's 7th Ave. A stream of bankers, fashion models, and other high-end BlackBerry addicts pay $30 a pop for Naftchi's new trackballs. "They need them fixed—'Now!' " the repairman says.

In the ever-morphing market for digital gadgetry, it should come as no surprise that the little sphere, flawed and strangely beloved, faces obsolescence. Trackball shipments in 2010 are expected to fall short of last year's peak of 25 million, says Tina Teng, a senior analyst for iSuppli's wireless group. The last trackballs installed in new BlackBerrys will go in its Tour model. Subsequent versions have trackpads, which allow users to manipulate their devices by moving a finger across a pad linked to an optical sensor. By 2013, iSuppli predicts trackball shipments will have ceased altogether. "Dead and gone is good," says Alexandra Hayden, 38. The designer, based in New York, has endured one too many trackball transplants. (BlackBerry maker Research In Motion declined to comment for this story.)

Others marvel at the liberation the orb represented in comparison to the earlier sidewheel. "When they went from the sidescroll to the trackball, that was a freeing moment," says Brooke Hammerling, 35, founder of Brew Media Relations in New York. The rolling thumb-mouse is perfect, she explains, for the BlackBerry game BrickBreaker.

The trackball repair business won't fade immediately, according to Naftchi, 47. He's still fixing old side-scroll wheel units years after they ceased production. Diehards will cling to trackballs, too. More than 80 million will have shipped before the curtain comes down, iSuppli projects.

Besides, nothing worth having ever goes away entirely. You can still buy a new manual typewriter on (AMZN) for $99.95. Betamax has its determined fans. And Westfield Whip Manufacturing in Westfield, Mass., produces more than 50,000 buggy whips annually. It's hard to kill a consumer icon.

The bottom line: Although future BlackBerrys will come with trackpad sensors, some customers will cling to the old technology

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