Is This the Porsche 911 of Smartphones?

The Blackberry Classic aims to revive the appeal of a product designed for pre-iPhone power users

By John Pavlus

Blackberry, the once-titanic, now-beleaguered smartphone manufacturer, would prefer it if you compared their latest product—the Blackberry Classic—to a powerful, expensive sports car rather than a cheap, ubiquitous soft drink. “The connotation of Coke moving back to the Classic flavor is a bit different from why we developed [Blackberry] Classic,” a spokesperson for the company told me in an email. This caginess is as understandable as the Coke analogy is irresistible: market leader makes massive misstep with its iconic product, tries to backtrack into known territory.

Alison Phillips, Senior Director of Industrial Design at Blackberry, doesn’t mind the comparison as much. The Blackberry Classic isn’t the company’s attempt to course-correct from the smartphone equivalent of New Coke, she says. Instead, it’s a “heritage product”—like the hourglass Coca-Cola bottle or the Porsche 911—that refreshes an iconic design while targeting a “core group of loyal Blackberry users.”

Whatever the rationale, it seems to be a smart move: For the first time in years, people are actually excited about a new Blackberry phone. Not in enough numbers to catapult Blackberry’s market share back to pre-iPhone levels—but that was never the point, according to Phillips. Blackberry Classic came out of a “very clear ask” from CEO John Chen “to listen very closely to what the needs and desires of our core users were.” This didn’t mean pulling a Blackberry Bold out of the broom closet and calling it the Classic. It meant revisiting what those core users found uniquely satisfying about that device and relaunching it as a sustainable niche product in 2015.

What core Blackberry users find satisfying is pretty concrete. Like a “surgeon with a scalpel,” Phillips says, a core Blackberry user wants a tool they can use to “with confidence and accuracy.” And the scalpel of the mobile-communications world is—you guessed it—a physical keyboard. “Our users send hundreds of emails a day. They want to be able to type quickly with complete precision, one-handed, and without looking if necessary,” Phillips says. The point of a hard QWERTY keyboard is not to evoke nostalgia; it’s so “you can type in absolute autopilot mode,” Phillips says. “Your fingers know exactly what keys they’re pressing. You don’t have to review the autocorrect. It’s that feeling of total, precise control at great speed.”

The Classic also brings back “the belt”—Blackberry-speak for the strip of physical navigation controls that sits between the screen and the keyboard. In the same way that the keyboard affords precise, no-look interactions, the function keys in the belt let users answer and end calls and navigate menus with a speed and accuracy that only muscle memory can provide. The tiny trackpad might seem redundant to the device’s modern touchscreen, but Phillips says that users missed it. “The trackpad keeps your fingers off the screen, which is useful for cutting and pasting,” she says. “The scale of your fingertip [on a touchscreen] is never going to be as precise for positioning a cursor as a trackpad is.”

The truth is that while Blackberry may never regain the market share it once had, and will almost certainly never be “cool” in the luxury-goods sense that Apple cultivates, its product-design DNA is an exclusive and valuable asset. It’s easy to scoff at the notion of comparing a Blackberry Classic to a Porsche 911, but “if you ask anyone in the world to draw a Blackberry, they’ll draw the same thing: a rounded rectangle with frets on the bottom,” Phillips says. Not even Apple can claim that kind of unique mindshare. (The prototypical iPhone “shape,” after all, could just as easily represent an Android or Xiaomi device.)

The Blackberry Classic might just represent a curiously inverted instance of what designer Jon Bell calls “design courage.” Sure, the Blackberry Classic has gotten lukewarm reviews when compared to top-of-the-line mainstream smartphones. And it might not seem courageous to give a loyal niche of users exactly what they wanted a decade ago and still want now, in a slightly updated package. (The Classic’s keyboard, for example, is arrayed at right angles—unlike the curved, “smiley” arrangement that Blackberry Bold models once had.) But in the innovation-for-innovation’s-sake culture of mobile technology, there is something about Blackberry’s commitment to a solved design problem that commands respect.

The Blackberry Classic will never appeal to you and me and everyone we know, but it isn’t designed to. It’s for people who send email like Robert de Niro in Heat robs banks. The Classic is tersely, monomaniacally professional: less a soda bottle than a syringe, less Porsche than Glock. Indeed, this might be the best metaphor for understanding the design of Blackberry’s so-called “heritage product.” If you don’t already know how to handle one, it’s not for you.