BlackBerry is still fighting for its rightful place in in the smartphone market, especially when it comes to keyboards.
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Last Friday the company filed a lawsuit against Typo, an LA-based startup that makes a physical keyboard accessory for the iPhone. Co-founded by American Idol presenter Ryan Seacrest, the $99 device snaps onto the iPhone 5 and 5S like a normal case, but extends the phone by half an inch in length with a physical keyboard. The lawsuit describes the Typo as “a blatant infringement against BlackBerry’s iconic keyboard.”
John Chen, who stepped in as BlackBerry’s new CEO on Nov. 4, spoke publicly about the lawsuit for the first time in an interview with Forbes this week, saying the lawsuit was simply an attempt to protect BlackBerry’s rights.
“[The] keyboard is our identity,” he said. “If you copy our keyboard, of course we need to assert that right… If somebody wants to license it they’re welcome to do that, but they can’t just take it.”
Physical QWERTY keyboards have been a legacy feature for years for BlackBerry phones, and people who continue to use its devices in the face growing competition from Apple and Samsung, say they still love the keyboard and can’t live without it.
Hence Typo could be a problem for BlackBerry if it takes off. The keyboard starts shipping later this month, and while Typo won’t share pre-order numbers, it claims to have sold out of its first batch of devices.
Other handset manufacturers like Nokia and Samsung have created phones with physical keyboards too, but it was hard not to notice during demonstrations of the Typo keyboard at CES, that the gadget appeared, effectively, to turn an iPhone into a BlackBerry.
In his recent review oft the Typo, Sascha Segan at PC Mag called it “the best alternative for people who desperately miss popular QWERTY phones,” but added that for all of Typo’s vigorous denials of copying BlackBerry, “it’s just like typing on a BlackBerry Bold… the subtle sculpting on the edges to prevent mis-typing gives it away.”
Typo’s CEO and co-founder, Laurence Hallier, dismissed Chen’s comments. “He says he has a monopoly on keyboards?” Hallier said on the sidelines of CES 2014. “We don’t believe we’ve violated any of BlackBerry’s patents, and we did do due diligence. We’re gong to defend this vigorously.”
Hallier says he found out about the lawsuit last Friday morning after reading about it in press reports, then got a copy of the lawsuit later that day.
He started the company two years ago with Seacrest when the two were at a restaurant and marveled at the four separate smartphones they had laid out on the table before them. Each had one phone for typing, and another for apps. Hallier and Seacrest have been the startup’s primary backers, putting a total $1 million into the company to date.
If the lawsuit blows over, Hallier hopes to have a tablet product ready this year.
Keyboards will play a key role in BlackBerry’s forthcoming products, as the company sticks it out in the consumer smartphone business with a renewed focus on enterprise mobility. Chen recently tied up a non-exclusive manufacturing partnerships with Foxconn which will see BlackBerry release a new touch-screen smartphone under $200 later this year, as well as a phone with a traditional keyboard that will be designed by BlackBerry.
“It’s not a negative message per se,” Chen said of the Typo lawsuit. “The keyboard is going to be a big part of our future.”