With the BlackBerry Q10 qwerty smartphone coming to the U.S. market in late May, it's fair to ask: How many customers will want to buy it?
In interviews, several analysts said BlackBerry needed to produce an updated qwerty device for its faithful base of 76 million global subscribers, although they don't generally believe the Q10 will make serious inroads in reversing BlackBerry's decline.
BlackBerry, as expected, sees it another way.
"I think there is a massive pent-up demand for a physical keyboard product," said Michael Clewley, director of handheld software product management for BlackBerry, in an interview. "There are some diehards" who like a qwerty keyboard, he said.
BlackBerry is also counting on a number of government agencies to buy the Q10 for their employees, he said.
The overwhelming majority of smartphones sold use touchscreen keyboards, including the BlackBerry Z10, the iPhone 5, the Galaxy S III and the soon-to-launch Galaxy S4, analysts said.
But Clewley said 80% to 90% of BlackBerry's 76 million global subscribers are already on BlackBerry qwerty devices, such as the qwerty-based Curve 8520 Gemini, and others. Most of those devices are at least two years old and ready for an update.
The Q10 sports an updated browser and runs the BlackBerry 10.1 operating system with other improvements that were first seen on the Z10, Clewley said. All the major U.S. carriers are expected to sell the Q10 in late May for a suggested price of $249 under contract, BlackBerry said this week.
One big downside to using a qwerty device like the Q10 is that the physical keypad cuts into the size of the touchscreen, which is increasingly important for viewing video and playing games.
The iPhone 5 jumped to a 4-in. screen after staying at 3.5-in. for previous versions, while the Galaxy S4 will have a 5-in. display. Meanwhile, the Q10's touchscreen will be just 3.1-inches, a 25% reduction from the size of the 4.2-in. touchscreen in the Z10.
But that smaller screen hasn't been a drawback to some qwerty faithful who have used the physical keyboards from BlackBerry for years and have tried the touchscreens, but haven't liked them.
One random BlackBerry qwerty user in Harrisonburg, Va., who gave her name only as Mary, pulled out an old Curve device for a reporter and showed how fast she could type with two thumbs on the physical keyboard. She was curious to know when the Q10 would be available and said she hasn't liked touchscreens.
"I really like the keyboard," she said.
Several analysts said they hear the woman's sentiment all the time, mainly from BlackBerry users, although there is also a core group of younger qwerty users on other platforms, such as the now-rare Sidekick, a horizontal slider with a physical keyboard that is especially useful for texting -- especially among young smartphone users.
BlackBerry originally made its reputation with various qwerty keyboard handhelds. It also largely failed with the BlackBerry Storm, a full touchscreen device introduced in late 2008, analysts said.
"The Z10 has only had moderate success so far, and there is still a large base of BlackBerry users who want to upgrade to BlackBerry 10 OS and have been waiting for a qwerty version in the Q10," said Kevin Burden, an analyst at Strategy Analytics.
Of the 76 million BlackBerry users worldwide, Burden said he'd be surprised if many are using the Storm. He said the vast majority of the BlackBerry users are indeed using older qwerty devices.