RIM Developers Still Waiting for BB10 Keyboard Prototypes

Software developers for Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry 10 smartphones have yet to get models with physical keyboards, the latest sign RIM is de-emphasizing its once-signature feature in favor of touch screens.

RIM will distribute prototypes with physical keyboards after the new software platform’s official debut on Jan. 30, said Victoria Berry, a company spokeswoman. Developers were given touch-screen versions months ago, letting them design applications for the phones. The pending keyboard prototypes will be known as Dev Alpha C devices, she said.

RIM is concentrating on smooth glass handsets that resemble Apple Inc.’s iPhone 5 or Samsung Electronics Co.’s Galaxy S III, shifting away from the raised black keypads that inspired the BlackBerry name. While RIM will sell a BlackBerry 10 model with a physical keyboard to cater to e-mail traditionalists, Chief Executive Officer Thorsten Heins has said he expects the touch version to account for most orders.

RIM is right to prioritize touch-screen models for growth, though it can’t yet afford to drop keyboard-equipped handsets altogether, said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics in Dedham, Massachusetts.

Stuck With It

“You can’t build a smartphone without a touch screen anymore,” he said. “But you can’t expect your loyal user base to stick with you if you take away why they’ve stuck with you.”

The BlackBerry’s name derives from the idea that the tiny, black keys on the device resemble the fruit. Users furiously pecking away at the keyboards fueled the image of the “CrackBerry” addict in the years before smartphones began usurping RIM’s market share.

RIM, based in Waterloo, Ontario, began handing out test models of the new BlackBerry 10 smartphones to developers last May. Though RIM stressed then that the prototype would differ from the final product, the glass slab was designed to give developers a tool to approximate the surface of the BlackBerry 10 touch-screen model.

Chief Marketing Officer Frank Boulben said in an interview earlier this month that there are now more than 70,000 apps available for BlackBerry 10, a sufficient number to make RIM competitive with more widely adopted platforms offered by Apple and Google Inc., whose Android system is used by Samsung.

Early Versions

Separate software developer kits, known as SDKs, will be distributed with the Dev Alpha C devices to help programmers tailor their apps to the smaller screen and different button controls on the keyboard models, RIM’s Berry said. As with the touch-screen versions, these prototypes will look different from the products that go on sale, she said.

BlackBerry fans must wait until the Jan. 30 debut for the first official glimpse of both the touch and keypad model. To prepare for the rollout, more than 120 U.S. companies, including 64 members of the Fortune 500, are doing advanced testing of BlackBerry 10 devices -- thus far solely with touch-screen models, RIM said.

RIM shares rose 1.2 percent to $14.91 at the close in New York. The stock has more than doubled since late September on optimism that BlackBerry 10 can reverse declining sales and help RIM win back market share lost to Apple’s iOS and to Android. RIM was poised to finish 2012 with a 4.7 percent share of the global market, compared with almost 90 percent for Apple and Android combined, research firm IDC said last month.

‘True Multitasking’

In recent demonstrations to journalists and analysts, RIM executives have shown features they say offer “true multitasking” that distinguish BlackBerry 10 from rivals, including the ability to peek at your e-mail or calendar without leaving the app you’re running. The Hub feature aggregates a user’s e-mail, text messages and social-media alerts in one place.

RIM has also built features into the virtual keyboard to persuade skeptics to convert from traditional Qwerty models. It offers word suggestions above the key the device thinks you’ll type next, and learns over time where on a given key your finger strikes to reduce mistyping.

RIM has said that the keyboard models will go on sale after the touch-screen versions, without specifying how much later. The fact RIM is close to giving developers those next prototypes is encouraging, said Recon’s Entner.

“What it means is that they’re very close,” he said. “At least they’ve got the electronics working.”

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