HTC to Ditch QWERTY Keypads?

HTC has announced a change in its design strategy. The Taiwanese manufacturer has said that it is moving its focus away from physical keypads and towards better screen technology in its future devices.

Claude Zellweger, HTC Creative Director, recently told Pocket Lint: “There’s sort of a die-hard community that keeps wanting it, but we feel that putting too much effort into that would take away from our main focus.”

HTC’s latest handsets, the One X and One S, both feature expansive touchscreens and have been getting glowing reviews, being compared to the best touchscreen devices on the market.

Conversely, the HTC Cha Cha, the Taiwanese manufacturer’s QWERTY keypad-sporting ‘Facebook phone’ which was released last summer has received a lukewarm reception from consumers. This could have influenced HTC’s inference that it plans on dropping physical keypads from forthcoming handsets.

The majority of handsets produced by HTC run Android, which has always given the impression that it is designed to work best on a large touchscreen, so it is understandable that the manufacturer is gearing its designs towards utilising this. It is also true that a physical keypad vastly increases the bulk of a handset, which not only reduces the space available for the touchscreen but makes the device more cumbersome than slimmer, touchscreen-only phones. With the advent of the One series, HTC has proved that slim and slender is where its intentions lie and physical keypads just do not fit in to its approach to design.

With a major manufacturer signalling that it believes the mobile-buying public are turning away from physical keypads, where does this leave RIM and its trademark Blackberry devices?

The Canadian manufacturer has deviated from the familiar Blackberry form factor in the past, releasing the all-touchscreen Storm back in 2008 in the hope that traditional Blackberry users would accept a device without physical keys. However, for many years RIM’s unique selling point for the Blackberry has been that it is very easy to type emails, giving the devices large appeal amongst the business community, leaving other manufacturers to clean up amongst demographics who wanted large touchscreens and the many options that they present.

Subsequent releases have toyed with combinations of inputs, based on a more conservative design. A number of handsets in the Torch range featured a small touchscreen and the re-introduction of the QWERTY keypad, along with an optical trackpad providing users with another option for navigation.

This layout is something that RIM has continued employ since, right up to its upcoming Curve 9320, details of which were accidentally leaked by T-Mobile last week. However, RIM has had to deal with the realisation that smartphone users could be deserting the Blackberry after it emerged that 40% of mobile phones recycled after last Christmas bore the Blackberry name.

Recently leaked mages of the upcoming Blackberry London appear to indicate that show RIM could be erring towards full touchscreen in its flagship models – if the range’s premium handset lacks this most identifying of features it could be evidence that RIM’s strategy is moving along the same lines as that of HTC.

In spite of what looks like an emerging trend in smartphone design, other manufacturers have gone against the grain and flirted with physical keypad design when their main focus has been on the more common, large touchscreen-sporting slabs. Samsung added a QWERTY keypad-sporting device to its Galaxy range last year with the Galaxy Pro, a Blackberry style handset that mostly failed in combining a physical keypad with a touchscreen. It felt as if the Korean manufacturer wasn’t so much experimenting with new designs as trying to tempt a few of RIM’s long-standing customers over to its flagship range by apeing Blackberry’s iconic feature.

So it may not be the biggest of surprises that HTC have made this announcement, as bold as it is to say it out loud. The Taiwanese company’s recent lack of success with the Cha Cha looks to have been enough to make it wary of QWERTY keypads and the super-slim One series on which its current focus lies does not lend itself to physical keys. However, if HTC are correct and, other than a die-hard minority, there is less consumer demand for physical keypads then it remains to be seen how RIM will adapt its range to the touchscreen era.

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