Geekend: Blackberry's Passport & Phone Design's Future - InformationWeek

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9/26/2014
10:06 AM
David Wagner
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Geekend: Blackberry's Passport & Phone Design's Future

BlackBerry's chunky Passport begs the question: Is it time to ditch the rectangular phone for something new?

This week BlackBerry announced a square phone and it came out that a lot of iPhone 6s are turning into boomerangs. With all these new shapes in phones, it actually got me kind of excited. I didn't know I was allowed to have them in any other shape but a rectangle. Is it time to radically re-think the shape of our phones? Let's consider some other options.

We might as well start with BlackBerry's square Passport. It actually isn't quite a square. It is more of a fat rectangle with a square screen. Still, it is a two-handed device at a full 3.5 inches wide, a full inch or more wider than even "big" phones, like the Galaxy or the new iPhone 6 Plus, which are often criticized as difficult to use with smaller hands. And unlike most candy-bar phones, it has only one orientation because it has a physical keyboard.

This isn't a full review. Honestly, I've never held one. They might be awesome. But what strikes me instantly is that BlackBerry has simply given up on the idea that their phones would ever be used for fun. If they thought you'd ever do something like watch a movie or even a YouTube video on it, they'd never give you a square screen. Not putting the screen in the HD standard aspect ratio of 16:9 is absolutely analog. Actually it is worse than analog because that's at least 4:3.

[Want more on the new BlackBerry? See BlackBerry's Hardware Hail Mary: 4 Challenges.]

Clearly, BlackBerry just thought, "Fine, we know only hardcore business users use this phone. Let's give them the best work space we can." So they widened the keyboard to make it more useful and they put a nice, big workspace on top, and the square was more attractive than other ratios. Here's one in action:

I'm not going to kick a company when it is down. But that was a BlackBerry in-house demo. Did that look fun to you? I think I'll have to pass on the square.

Still, let's give the folks at BlackBerry a round of applause because they had the guts to make a phone that didn't look like every other phone. That's something Apple used to get credit for. Even Apple just made the iPhone 6 Plus by stretching a regular iPhone.

Speaking of which, Apple has invented another new shape to address -- the boomerang. Apparently iPhone 6s are bending in people's pockets. Check out this (clearly shameless hit grabbing) video of it in action:

That's some pretty substantial bending with relative ease. Who would possibly want a phone that could do that? People who think their phones will come back to them if they throw them? People who think it is just a little too big and want to shrink it to the size a regular iPhone?

I mean, look at that. You could use it as a Slim Jim.

No, not that kind of Slim Jim. This kind.

You could also shine it up really well and use it as compact. You could put grapes on one end, hit the other end really hard, and launch the grapes into another cubicle like a catapult.

Heck, maybe Apple intended it to do that. After all, for nearly a century phones were bent so they go around our faces. Maybe they'll add a rotary dial to the iPhone 7.

Still, I think I'll pass. Too much like my old flip phone. So what's next?

Fans of The Office might remember how to "unleash the power of the pyramid."

Actually, I think the idea of a triangular phone isn't a bad one, but The Office has it upside down. The point shouldn't be at the top but on the bottom. Isn't the problem with your phone that you have trouble reaching all the letters with your thumb when you are texting? What if your phone tapered at the bottom so the keyboard is easier to reach while the screen was wider? Almost like a trapezoid? Too funky?

Another great idea comes from a pair of concept phones. How does a totally round phone sound? Check out the phones by Apple and Daniel Lau. They look snazzy. I'm especially fond of Lau's phone, the Sero, which looks a lot like a Nest thermostat or a hockey puck. The Sero solves one of my biggest problems with my phone -- it has a spool to wrap my headphones around.

But I'd be remiss if I made fun of the square BlackBerry for being hard to watch video on and didn't say the same thing about a round screen. At least the round screen looks new and fresh, but it will cut off the corners of your favorite media. I'd also be worried about dropping my phone. I live in San Francisco. Could you imagine dropping your phone at the top of a hill and having it roll all the way to the bottom -- only to be smashed by a streetcar?

I think I'd still enjoy showing off my round phone at a conference until everyone else had one though. Let's keep it on the short list.

In the end, though, there's one shape that keeps coming back to me as the ideal phone shape -- the hourglass. Just a slight taper in the middle would make a current smartphone so much easier to use. It would be sleek and sexy like a sports car with gentle curves and nice lines. Having a soft indentation in the middle would make it easier to hold, and it would make it easier to text if you brought the virtual keyboard up to the center of the phone. As long as the thin part in the middle wasn't too extreme, it wouldn't interfere with the 16:9 aspect ratio to watch media. If you flipped the phone sideways, the two "lobes" of the hourglass would make it ideal to hold as a gaming controller. And the rounded edges might make it harder to break if it was dropped.

The more I think about this, the more I'm done with rectangles. It is time for someone to come up with a bold new shape to the phone. What shape would you choose? Am I onto something with the hourglass? Should phones be zigzag or like the bat signal? Is BlackBerry's square phone a great idea or stupid? Is this its comeback device? Do you just like the current shape of phones? Tell me in the comments.

How cloud, virtualization, mobility, and other network-altering trends impact security -- and the IT pros responsible for infrastructure protection. Get the Network Security Career Guide issue of Network Security today.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
9/26/2014 | 10:37:20 AM
Phone Shapes
A long, long time ago, in this galaxy, something called the Palm Pilot was invented. The complaint about it catching on was that nobody would want to walk around carrying a brick-like object. How far we've come.

Was Blackberry trying to be a competitive differentiator? Let's hope that's why they went the way they did. They should win a prize for the worst video. The round phone is unique, but I don't want to confuse it with a tin of Altoids.

How did we wind up with square? Maybe from the Palm Pilot. But I've always liked the Pyramid too.

 

 

 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 12:24:37 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
@jastroff- I do believe Blackberry was trying to distinguish themselves and they definitely did that. and i suspect among their core audience there will be fans. But if I were trying to "turnaround" Blackberry, I'd be coming up with a bold design that attracted non-business users. Maybe there just isn't one. Maybe the rectangle is the best we can do without makign the thing too expensive. 
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
9/26/2014 | 2:45:46 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
If I recall correctly, Apple spent a lot of money bringing in Ivey and crew to focus on design and we know the results of that work. That said, there are so many instances where someone totally reinvents a common household device in a bold way and we suddenly realize how much better it is in the new format; surely phones will undergo such a transformation! Think about the early phones, with the separate mouthpiece and dial base. If I knew what that shape was, I'd let you know -- from my private Caribbean island!
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 2:50:08 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
@alison- What is funny about phones today is they work best as anything but a phone. I'm not 100% sure that we've done this on purpose. If I thought we had, maybe I'd be less interested in a new design. We are clearly using our phones as phones less so it is time to address what they are. But they're not tab;ets because we have those. What are they? Backup tablets? Texting devices? I'm not sure.
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
9/26/2014 | 3:55:08 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
@dave -- Amen! Smartphones are at their worst as telephones -- both for quality, design, and function. But I can play a great game of checkers on my expensive Android. None of them, except for the old flip phones (imo), ever deliver good voice and convenient voice management tools. Ray Ozzie makes some good points recently on the importance of voice and voice collaboration tools with his new company Talko.
StaceyE
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StaceyE,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 3:56:56 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
@David I absolutely agree with you! I use my phone for just about everything...except making phone calls. Occasionally if I am out I will get or make a call, but the reception is not great at all (I use a phone from the Samsung Galaxy line). There is nothing worse than making someone repeat themselves ten times or to have a call drop while your in mid sentence. In my opinion, all the other tasks a smart phone can do are pretty great, I think that companies should focus on better call quality for awhile!
StaceyE
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StaceyE,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 3:57:02 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
@David I absolutely agree with you! I use my phone for just about everything...except making phone calls. Occasionally if I am out I will get or make a call, but the reception is not great at all (I use a phone from the Samsung Galaxy line). There is nothing worse than making someone repeat themselves ten times or to have a call drop while your in mid sentence. In my opinion, all the other tasks a smart phone can do are pretty great, I think that companies should focus on better call quality for awhile!
StaceyE
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StaceyE,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 3:57:13 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
@David I absolutely agree with you! I use my phone for just about everything...except making phone calls. Occasionally if I am out I will get or make a call, but the reception is not great at all (I use a phone from the Samsung Galaxy line). There is nothing worse than making someone repeat themselves ten times or to have a call drop while your in mid sentence. In my opinion, all the other tasks a smart phone can do are pretty great, I think that companies should focus on better call quality for awhile!
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 11:06:41 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
StaceyE, why do you think smart phone makers have ignored call quality for so long? Because people, like you and me, don't often use them for calls and so mfrs are complacent? I blame txt messaging.
shakeeb
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shakeeb,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 11:39:36 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
@Broadway0474 – Enhancing call quality requires much battery strength, today smartphones with high power processors and large displays consume much power then some basic phones. 
StaceyE
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StaceyE,
User Rank: Ninja
10/31/2014 | 2:02:39 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
@ Broadway

You are exactly right! I absolutely hate the quality when I do have to actually use my smart phone as a phone. People ask me why I have a home phone when I have a cell phone...it is because when I do make a call I want it to have some quality...so I don't have to repeat myself 50 times.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 6:27:44 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
@Alison- I suppose Apple thinks they've reached the final evolution of the phone. Maybe they have. Maybe the next major change is putting the phone in our heads. I did a geekend a few weeks ago about computer-assisted telepathy. Maybe that's the next major phase.
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
9/26/2014 | 3:49:59 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
Maybe that WAS Blackberry's idea of a "turnaround"  -- they were outside the box thinkers, but that was a long time ago.
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
9/26/2014 | 12:02:54 PM
Design and functionality

Dave you raise an interesting question, not only from a design perspective but from a functionality perspective. I think it's interesting we don't have an ergonomically designed smartphone that it designed for comfort and usage in the hands. We have found ways around the phones tiny key boards with Siri and other voice activated mechanisms but where is the true design genius of a phone that can be used to comfortably type on and view business as well as personal content effectively. While we are at it can we design a phone with some battery life!: )

David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 12:27:00 PM
Re: Design and functionality
@impactnow- You bring up an excellent point about voice activation. Maybe I'm focused ont he wrong thing. Right now, I don't think voice is good enough to replace my fingers. But it is getting very good. i also like some of the gesture controls I have with my android. Pausing a video with the flick of a wrist is the kind of first step toward hand's free control.

When the fingers stop being needed, there's no reason to shape the phone like anything but a video screen.
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
9/29/2014 | 1:33:18 PM
Re: Design and functionality

Dave it's interesting, I have a friend who uses only the voice on their phone because they have a visual impairment. They are able to make their iPhone perform all the needed functions through voice or something called double tap which is an accessibility function on the iPhone. So the all voice activated phone may be getting closer for all of us. I personally can't wait, I can never type fast enough on those tiny key boards.

David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/29/2014 | 2:20:31 PM
Re: Design and functionality
@impactnow- We have come a long way. I remember back when voice dialing started. A friend I was living with at the time and I tried it for fun. And it never dialed the right number. So we started saying things like "call the moon" just to see what it called. 
StaceyE
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StaceyE,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 4:03:00 PM
Re: Design and functionality
@ David

Haha, I think we all must have played with the voice dialing just for fun in the beginning. I remember just saying random things to my phone just to see who it would call. Cheap entertainment, I was just as surprised to talk to the person my phone called as that person was to hear from me!
shakeeb
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shakeeb,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 11:44:08 PM
Re: Design and functionality
@StacyE – It's fun to tryout things on the smartphone, but sometimes when I really need voice dialing it doesn't work pretty well. 

Have you come across any such situation?
StaceyE
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StaceyE,
User Rank: Ninja
10/31/2014 | 4:31:38 PM
Re: Design and functionality
@ Shakeeb

Funny you should ask this...My brother likes to use the talk-to-text feature on his phone, but he never proof reads the message before he sends it. The other day I got a really rude text message from him...I called him right away to find out why he was going to slap me down if he didn't get his money (especially since I don't owe him any). He really said that his buddy was in town and they were going to the casino to win some money....Yeah, I don't have much faith in the voice recognition capabilities of the smart phone.
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
9/30/2014 | 10:55:44 PM
Re: Design and functionality
Its getting much better even on tablets! I have used my tablet and voice activation to do some posts and its pretty accurate. I sometimes have to make a correction or two but its still faster than typing on tiny key boards.
shakeeb
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shakeeb,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 11:40:55 PM
Re: Design and functionality
@impactnow – Yes voice dialing or voice typing is a great feature now available on most of the smartphones. This is indeed really helpful when you're driving. 
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
9/26/2014 | 6:45:24 PM
I'll stick with the rectangle
THe problem is that the rectangle, while boring, is essentially reaaly functional. It grants you HD aspect ratios, fits in your pocket and with rounded corners doesn't jab you when you sit down. (sorry the triagle phone is out, I mean ouch! i don't want to accidently sit on that. Since we already havea functional shape the only thing you can do is smooth it out add a couple of curves for design's sake, but for that design I'm betting we end up paying for just like that sports car. I think I'll stick with my boring rectangle. Now what other shapes can everyone think up for a new phone?
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
9/26/2014 | 10:58:44 PM
Re: I'll stick with the rectangle
You are right. So far the rectangle beats them all.  The idea of the hour glass is really interesting.  how about instead of looking for a specific shape, may be we should have a phone that changes sizes.  When we need to put it in our pocket in becomes small and when we need to watch videos of talk to our friends it becomes bigger. 
jgherbert
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jgherbert,
User Rank: Ninja
9/29/2014 | 10:19:12 AM
Re: I'll stick with the rectangle
@PedroGonzales>

how about instead of looking for a specific shape, may be we should have a phone that changes sizes.  When we need to put it in our pocket in becomes small and when we need to watch videos of talk to our friends it becomes bigger.

Congratulations; you just described the Flip Phone!  *lol*

StaceyE
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StaceyE,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 4:05:32 PM
Re: I'll stick with the rectangle
@jgherbert

You know they say that things that go out of style always make a come back! I wonder how long it will be until Apple figures out how to fold the iPhone in half (or even better quarters...as big as they are getting the half would still be too big for the pockets!)
shakeeb
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shakeeb,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 11:42:14 PM
Re: I'll stick with the rectangle
@StacyE – Yes phones are becoming bigger and bigger every day, Its slimmer but larger in size. 
StaceyE
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StaceyE,
User Rank: Ninja
10/31/2014 | 4:26:20 PM
Re: I'll stick with the rectangle
@ shakeeb

I think we are going to see the cellular phone do a full circle...they started out the size of a brick and we are quickly heading back in the same direction.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/29/2014 | 1:53:20 PM
Re: I'll stick with the rectangle
@Pedro- Yes, that's my dream, too. One phone that can bend and stretch to fit my needs as a phone and a tablet. I've seen demos but we're a long way to get to the type of HD screen we're used to on regular phones.
jgherbert
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jgherbert,
User Rank: Ninja
9/28/2014 | 6:33:57 PM
Clever Keyboard
Credit where it's due - at least, I've not seen it before - that keyboard is genius. Sadly I don't want it, but from a pure technology perspective, I watched the video and marveled at the fact that the keyboard was able to act as a large touchpad on the bottom of the phone, meaning that you could select autocomplete entries without having to "leave" the keyboard, and you could select text without your finger being in the way. 

So there's the positive - I think that's really smart. Better than a touch keyboard? I guess they're hoping it is, but I'm not so sure. The fact that the keys area aligned perfectly rather than offset like a regular keyboard would probably drive me mad in short order. But a hearty bravo for innovation in keyboards - I like to see that.

Beyond that, sadly, I see BB as a company drowning in its own irrelevance. It had a captive market for years because of the push mail capability and physical keyboards. Now the smartphones have very usable touch keyboards, and they all have push mail capability. Take those away and, IMO, BB has very little left to offer, and such a small ecosystem that there's nothing to pull me in.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
9/28/2014 | 10:00:02 PM
Re: Clever Keyboard
jgherbert, is there hope for BB? Should they bother to try to rescue the company? Perhaps they should have dismantled the place while the IP still has some value?
jgherbert
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jgherbert,
User Rank: Ninja
9/29/2014 | 10:18:05 AM
Re: Clever Keyboard
@Broadway0474> This keyboard is the first good bit of R&D I've seen come out of RIM/BB for years. With the wonderful benefit of 20-20 hindsight it's clear that they waited too long before they recognized the size of the smart phone threat, were very slow coming up with a competing device, then delivered solutions that nobody seemed to want. So personally - with no business head on me whatsoever - I don't care what they do because at this point, they're an irrelevant company to me. It saddens me to see a giant fall so far, but when even the long term BB fans are changing platform, you know they missed the boat by a mile.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/29/2014 | 2:17:59 PM
Re: Clever Keyboard
@Broadway0474- I think there's hope for Blackberry as a software company. They still have plenty of products (especially around secure communications) that would be highly valuable. 
progman2000
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progman2000,
User Rank: Ninja
9/29/2014 | 2:35:00 PM
Re: Clever Keyboard
Still, for me, nothing will ever hold a candle to Blackberrys keyboard.  I have never ever found a touchscreen keyboard I am comfortable with, and even some of the other manufacturer keyboards are quite lack luster.  Blackberry nailed their keyboard, too bad it was not enough to save them...
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
9/29/2014 | 10:06:07 PM
Re: Clever Keyboard
Sadly, program2000, keyboards appear to be overrated. Touchscreen keyboards are enervating to use for any length of time. They're inaccurate and frustrating, even before you bring auto-correct into the picture. But as we move to more and more visual modes of communication, who the heck cares?
shakeeb
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shakeeb,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 11:47:04 PM
Re: Clever Keyboard
@Broadway0474 – I am still using a Blackberry 8520 (old and cheap) because of its QWERTY keyboard. I could close my eyes and draft an email with it. 
shakeeb
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shakeeb,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 11:48:04 PM
Re: Clever Keyboard
@Broadway0474 – I don't think Android touch screen phones work the same way no matter how much work recognition features they have.  
jgherbert
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jgherbert,
User Rank: Ninja
9/28/2014 | 6:39:03 PM
Square Screens
I think we have established in the desktop world that square screens are just so last decade. I don't see what the advantage is of this shape. Rectangular has clear advantages - two orientations, it matches photography norms so photos and video make the most of the pixel space you paid for, a portrait rectangle is a comfortable form factor for holding, and it pushes the ear piece to the ear while bringing the microphone towards the pie hole. Square just seems to fly in the face of all logic and ergonomics. Of course, as noted in other comments, who uses these as phones any more, let along by holding up to their ears? Maybe that's true, but you should still be able to, and comfortably.

Of course if you're a heavy Instagram user and like your square photographs, you have just found your perfect phone. Perhaps they need to market this as the HipsterPhone 7 or something?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/29/2014 | 1:56:36 PM
Re: Square Screens
@jgherbert- Instagram! You're right, that's one "cool" thing I forget that Blackberry would be great for. I can imagine hipsters ironically using a Blackberry as well. Maybe you'r eonto something. is it possible Blackberry can already be "retro cool?"
jgherbert
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jgherbert,
User Rank: Ninja
9/29/2014 | 10:22:19 AM
New Shapes

"The more I think about this, the more I'm done with rectangles. It is time for someone to come up with a bold new shape to the phone."

Well then, do I have a phone for you! Check out http :// www.pomegranatephone.com . I think it will be everything you ever hoped for in a new phone design.

 

(An oldie but goodie)

nasimson
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nasimson,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 12:27:26 PM
Re: New Shapes
Oh my God!

Coffee brewer, projector, harmonica, shaver in a phone. What else does one want in a phone? Nothing is too much to ask for.
Michelle
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Michelle,
User Rank: Ninja
9/29/2014 | 5:17:10 PM
Pear-shaped
I think the new design is awful. I feel bad for Blackberry in all thier troubles. They were once the king of mobiles but failed to innovate quick enough to properly complete with Apple, then Google later. I vote for pear-shaped devices from Blackberry...
nasimson
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nasimson,
User Rank: Ninja
9/29/2014 | 10:35:09 PM
Blackberry bashing
Not commenting on the new rectangle blackberry, I'd just share my observation from different forums on how analysts and bloggers love to bash blackberry. Its like beating the dead - time and again.
shakeeb
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shakeeb,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 11:45:33 PM
Re: Blackberry bashing
@ nasimson – I still love blackberry over other phones, it's easy to use and has much better call quality. 
nasimson
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nasimson,
User Rank: Ninja
10/2/2014 | 11:24:53 AM
Re: Blackberry bashing
@shakeeb: Better network quality? Isn't that function of the network? The phone, blackberry or Android has very little to do with it!
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
10/1/2014 | 7:39:42 AM
The shape of phones to come
I know that smart phones are getting bigger but I've wondered why we don't have a tapered device or something in an upside down tear drop/pear shape.  I have big hands so something like the iPhone 6 plus, Note series or even a small tablet aren't a problem for me.  I use my Note II one handed but when people borrow it to make a call I realize just how unwieldy it can be.  A smaller bottom quarter could give them the screen real estate while still being able to hold on to the thing.  I guess that causes resolution problems but some smart designer could figure this out.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
10/2/2014 | 12:16:09 AM
All shapes, all sizes...
LOL Dave!  I was thinking of the "Pyramid" from The Office right when I started the article!

Maybe a symmetrical trapezoid would be best...wider base for the keyboard.  ;)

And speaking of odd-shaped phones, Nokia's made some pretty wild-shaped ones too -- albeit folding/transformer-like ones.  (Can't remember the model names off the top of my head.)
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