BlackBerry’s Passport smartphone, which features an unusual large square-shaped display, was met with notable confusion when it was quietly announced during an earnings conference last month. The handset seems to be suffering from an identity crisis – caught between the company’s traditional keyboard-toting smartphones and the larger-screened tablet form-factor. BlackBerry is clearly aware of the issue, and has stepped in to explain why we should be excited about the product’s unusual design.
Though the Passport’s internals are yet to be confirmed (it’s rumored to carry a quad-core Snapdragon CPU), we do know that it will feature a 4.5-inch display with razor-sharp 1,440 x 1,440 resolution (that's 452 pixels per inch). Adding fuel to its unique fire is a somewhat squashed-looking physical Qwerty keyboard. While past keyboard-toting BlackBerry handsets have opted for a roughly 50/50 split between display and keyboard, the Passport pays significantly more attention to the screen, leaving a lot less vertical space for the keyboard.
Given how important typing is on a device aimed at the business market, this may seem like an odd design choice, but BlackBerry claims that there’s method in its madness. The key notion here is that the Passport is not designed as a media consumption device, but represents “the IMAX of productivity,” allowing users to see more of the document or spreadsheet they are working on.
The wider screen allows more characters to be displayed on a single line (60, as opposed the 40 achieved by rectangular smartphones), bringing it close to the academically established optimal 66 characters per line. This, the company says, makes the new device better suited for document and e-book reading, and even web browsing purposes.
BlackBerry is keen to point out practical scenarios where the form-factor will shine, including architects viewing full building designs, medical professionals reviewing x-rays with patients, and writers taking advantage of the larger screen real estate, unobscured by a physical keyboard.
While the concept and practical applications do make sense, there seems to be a disconnect between concept and reality. For example, yes, it would be possible for a writer to use the Passport to develop their work, and yes, it would likely be a better experience than that currently offered on more traditional smartphones, but it’s unclear why they would opt to work on the device in the first place. It's also unclear how big your pockets would need to be to squeeze this bad boy in there.
The concept also seems to ignore the existence of tablets, which provide more expansive screens, making them better suited to viewing content, be it professional or otherwise. With most tablets, including the iPad, you can buy keyboard covers that move the typing experience closer to that of a traditional laptop.
While previous attempts to sidestep smartphone display conventions have tended to end with a whimper (we’re looking at you, LG Optimus Vu), Blackberry’s clear focus on business users may help the Passport find its niche. Without hands-on time with the handset, though, it’s impossible to pass judgement. The handset is expected to launch in 2015.