January 27, 2012 9:53 pm

Touching the void

Never mind apps and battery life, the most appealing thing about a BlackBerry is its keyboard

At a recent corporate retreat (not mine, someone else’s) the audience was treated to a glossy video which had been produced by a glass company looking to sell its products to tech companies. The viewer was introduced to an unlikely family that ticked every diversity box to ensure the company in question didn’t have to resort to producing special editions for various regions. I was about to tune out and turn to answering emails below the table but, as the family’s daily life started to unfold, I was captivated by its awfulness.

The main pitch was that, assuming all goes to (this company’s) plan, we will soon be living in a wonderful world where our every move will be made that much easier by glass screens that will greet us in the bathroom and give us our emails while we brush our teeth – while also advising that we might be low on toilet paper. In another room a massive glass wall might allow for an impromptu conference call while an all-glass kitchen will be a series of flashing recipes and alerts (hot surfaces, low milk supply, too much salt in your porridge and bills in need of payment).

The story took us through a busy day in a metropolis where icy panels of glass punctuated tasks both complicated and mundane. From clothing purchases to lunch orders, business meetings to home entertainment, members of this ideal family swiped, pinched and swooped at these screens and every part of their day was seemingly made better by touch-panel technology. In short, it was a vision of hell that’s about to engulf us.

The world that this family resided in was so horrendous that I wanted to smash my head through the flatscreen on which I was viewing the film. Theirs was a frigid, flat, sexless world where the unfortunate Filipinas in the family’s employment would be working double time to keep all those surfaces spotless and SC Johnson would be reporting triple-digit growth as Windex sales skyrocketed, what with all the spraying and polishing going on.

My design-editor colleague Hugo recently penned an essay that celebrated the joy of buttons – not the fastening type but the big bulbous green variety that kick assembly lines to life and start engines. He discussed the satisfaction that comes with pushing a big red plastic circle (preferably back-lit) surrounded by a metal neck and knowing that machinery will come to a grinding halt or missiles will be launched or the alarm will be sounded. He argued that everyone loves the positive feeling that comes with the sensation that something will happen as a result of that small disc popping back into place.

I’d like to know who’s waging war against buttons. Is it the glass companies in collusion with a clutch of tech companies clustered around San José? Is it a sinister industrialist in a secret warehouse in the suburbs of Taipei? Or is it all those people (I believe they call themselves consultants) who get paid far too much money just to find ways of saving it? It might be a combination of all three, but I suspect that a consultant has convinced too many companies that it’s best to have as few moving parts as possible and therefore the future will be all about unsatisfying pokes and swipes at lifeless stretches of glass.

In recent months BlackBerry’s parent RIM has been taking a thumping in the markets as results have disappointed and management has failed to offer up much in the way of vision. While a new CEO has just taken the helm, it seems that neither the analysts, investors nor senior management have been focusing on their most basic asset – the Qwerty keyboard. Never mind next-generation operating systems, apps and increased battery life, the most appealing thing about a BlackBerry is the reassuring click that comes from its keyboard.

Talk to most people who fire off emails all day and few will delight in the functionality of touchscreens. While some may hide behind attractive features like predictive typing and horizontal keyboards, all will agree that you can’t beat a keyboard for accuracy and the delight that comes from pounding out a disciplinary note to under-performing colleagues or firing off a letter to the CEO of a company that has let you down. Indeed, half the fun is giving a keyboard a good old bashing and then hammering the send key for a final one-two punch.

While many debate the future of BlackBerry as a serious player in the market, its competitors should be thinking about the consumers who aren’t interested in products that don’t offer the satisfying tactile experience that comes with an array of buttons that clatter and click and even occasionally stick. Just as the Impossible Project has revived the Polaroid business by producing film and restoring cameras, there will no doubt be big business in restoring old Nokias, BlackBerrys and Samsungs that feature quaint, reliable and accurate keyboards.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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