Sunday, May 22, 2022

The BlackBerry Storm showed why you should never turn a touchscreen into a button

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Shreya Christina
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In 2007, the iPhone ushered in an era of touchscreen gadgets that made most buttons disappear from our phones forever. But there was a brief moment in the gray, passing haze between buttons and touchscreens when an unlikely company attempted to fuse the two together. BlackBerry shared the difference by boldly asking, “What if it was a touchscreen?” also a hardware button?”

This is how the BlackBerry Storm was created, a device whose entire touchscreen also served as a push button. The Storm was one of the first (and last) attempts to bridge the gap between the legacy world of physical keyboards and the modern world of touchscreens. But to understand the existence of the BlackBerry Storm and its bizarre click screen, we must first go back and understand BlackBerry at the height of its power — and why it wanted to keep buttons alive.

To BlackBerry, buttons goods the whole point of its products. When you picture a BlackBerry phone in your head, you don’t see a removable plate. You see a full QWERTY keyboard that occupies the bottom third of a phone, with impossibly small keys that are somehow perfect for typing. A BlackBerry without the ubiquitous, clicking keyboard for firing BBM messages and emails was hardly a BlackBerry. Even the company’s logo evokes the chiclet keys that built its brand.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

But even the most beloved buttons can’t resist the relentless waves of progress: touchscreens were the future and BlackBerry had to jump on board. As Steve Jobs noted in his… now famous 2007 iPhone introductionPhones like the BlackBerry or Palm Treo “all have these keyboards out there, whether you need them or not, and they all have these control buttons mounted in plastic.” And as such, they cannot adapt to specific applications or user interfaces. It was an observation that would predate the announcement of the touchscreen-only iPhone and the beginning of the end for hardware buttons on phones.

BlackBerry got the message. And so, in 2008, the company created the Storm, its first touchscreen phone. At the time, the device had a 3.25-inch screen, much larger than the then usual 2.5-inch screens. And it didn’t have a physical keyboard.

Instead, the Storm had a unique “SurePress” screen: instead of keyboard buttons, the full view was a giant button that could be pressed like a trackpad. On an iPhone, you simply tapped a virtual keyboard with no real indication that you were pressing anything. On the BlackBerry Storm, you had to physically “press” every key to type, complete with an extremely satisfying “click” sound, thanks to the mechanical switch underneath.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

It was a great idea, in theory. In practice, the Storm was terrible to type on. (There’s a reason we use lots of small keys for typing instead of one giant button.) The Storm’s huge screen was slow and had to go all the way down and up before you could press another key. The blazing-fast typing that BlackBerry users had become accustomed to slowed to an icy pace: typing letter by font.

The company would try to adapt the formula to the storm2 a year later, replacing the single mechanical switch with: four piezoelectric switches in the corners of the display (allowing you to “press” several keys at once). It also added a full-sized QWERTY keyboard vertically (where the original only offered a strange option of two letters per key). But even then, SurePress technology wasn’t good enough to replicate the feel of typing on one of BlackBerry’s regular keyboards.

BlackBerry was trying to give customers the best of both worlds when it created the Storm; instead it worked to exploit the worst qualities from both physical hardware and touch screen typing. It resulted in a laggy, slow experience that wasn’t particularly enjoyable or easy to type on. The physical elements were louder and more tiring for users than a traditional QWERTY keyboard, without the tangible benefits of multiple hardware keys. The added friction of the physical switch also detracted from the great benefits of a touchscreen for typing.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

It’s no wonder BlackBerry gave up its SurePress technology soon after: In 2010, the next flagship, the BlackBerry Torch, would offer a screen the same size as the Storm, but with a traditional BlackBerry QWERTY keyboard.

For years after the Storm, BlackBerry would bounce between full-touch screen devices and its trusty hardware keyboard (in many cases, both). But the company has never attempted to build a tactile touchscreen again.

Because while buttons can be a good way to use a phone — and touchscreens can be a good way to use a phone — a huge hybrid with touchscreen buttons turned out to be a terrible idea.

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