Does Your Phone Speak QWERTY?

In the dog-eat-dog world of smart phones, a 140-year-old design is making waves.

Motorola MPx
This fall, cell phones with full QWERTY keyboards are giving plain old handsets a run for their money. The current craze started with PalmOne's Treo 600, currently twelfth on the list of best-selling phones at Amazon.com. Nipping at the Treo's heels are new phones from Danger, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Nokia, Sierra Wireless, Sony, and others.

Why the move toward QWERTY keyboards? Mobile users say they're frustrated by responding to text messages via a numeric keypad. The QWERTY keyboard changes that.

"I find I'll text people instead of calling, simply because it's easier not to deal with voice messages," says Treo 600 user Daniel Rubén Odio-Páez, founder and Realtor of DROdio.com Realty in Falls Church, Virginia.

"The only thing I'd change about the keyboard is the way it locks the phone down," Odio-Páez says. "I have to press two buttons to unlock it. It seems there should be an easier way."

Dave Printz, vice president and CIO at Central DuPage Hospital in Chicago, loves the Treo 600's design, and prefers using its keyboard to Palm Graffiti touch-screen input. "I just took the Treo to Hawaii, and I was able to stay in touch with the hospital from anywhere," Printz says. "It's great."

Opportunity Taps

Sensing opportunity, competitors are serving up alternatives to the Treo. Sierra Wireless's Voq features a 12-key dial pad that pivots out to form half of a QWERTY keyboard and exposes the other half underneath. The Voq allows users to type and save notes on the QWERTY keyboard during a phone call, a feature unique to the Microsoft Windows Smartphone platform. Another Voq feature predictively completes QWERTY input, suggesting names in the phone's contact book, for instance.

HP IPaq 6315
Creativity is rampant in QWERTY-enabled phones. The new HP IPaq 6315 is the only Windows Smartphone so far to ship with a removable keypad that clips onto the bottom of the unit (making it slightly thicker in the process).

Sidekick II
Danger's new Sidekick II from T-Mobile is debuting pending certification to run hundreds of Java applications. The device sports added and rearranged buttons to simplify tasks from picture taking to gaming.

None of these keyboards will ever be sufficient for touch-typing, but customers will likely be content to tap on them anyway. "The more intensive the data use, the more a keyboard as a data-entry device is required," says John Brandewie, marketing manager for converged devices at Hewlett-Packard's Personal Systems Group.

"Converged devices" may conjure up false alarms of past years, when all gadgets were supposedly boiling down into one uber-device, but the lowly QWERTY keyboard is indeed compelling some handheld users to set aside their older PDAs for good. Many models of Research in Motion's BlackBerry, an early full-QWERTY PDA, are also now mobile phones. The BlackBerry 7230 is currently fourteenth among Amazon.com's best-selling phones, says Frank Sadowski, Amazon vice president of consumer electronics merchandising.

QWERTY-enabled smart phones typically fall in the $200 to $400 range, though almost all such phones also require a lengthy initial service contract with a carrier. Smart phones without full QWERTY keyboards vary in price, but many are available for less than that amount.

The newest QWERTY phones are commonly found only at one carrier. The Voq, for instance, is available in the Netherlands; in the United States it's certified for AT&T Wireless's network, but that provider isn't yet offering it.

Moving Beyond QWERTY

Phone makers are also toying with designs bearing fewer keys than a QWERTY keyboard, but more than the 12 keys of a regular keypad. RIM is planning a slimmer, more cell phone-like version of the BlackBerry code-named Charm, reports Web magazine Engadget. Each key might represent one of two possible letters of the alphabet, with the phone guessing which one as the user types.

"It's not something I would use," says Peter Rojas, Engadget editor. But many industry observers expect manufacturers to keep trying different keyboard compromises on phones, hoping to strike gold.

The new phones also pose some new social-behavior challenges. Users of the cellular radios in such phones will have to get in the habit of turning them off to conserve power, or to respect bans on cell phone use in particular areas. Taking such action on a Windows Smartphone is known as putting it in "flight mode."

And what of the lowly, phone-less PDA? After months of declining sales and the U.S. withdrawal of PDA manufacturers such as Sony, the QWERTY phone phenomenon may hasten its transformation.

"The traditional PDA is going to go very low end, the sort of thing you might give your son or daughter," says Ken Hyers, senior analyst in charge of the Wireless Data Service at In-Stat/MDR in Newton, Massachusetts. "Or you might just keep [one] around to keep notes on in the same way that many people use a scratch pad, but they're going to be cheap, sub-$50 devices for the most part."

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