Could Apple have a slider-style iPhone up its sleeve?
That's what The Register thinks, reporting Monday that Apple has shown off prototypes of an iPhone with a hardware keyboard to certain executives at wireless operators. The current iPhone famously comes with only one hardware button that returns the user to the home screen, with the rest of the buttons enabled in software.
The lack of a hardware keyboard is said to be a detriment for business users who are hooked on their BlackBerrys, and the iPhone's touch-screen keyboard certainly does take some getting used to in the first couple of weeks. The report suggests that a hardware-keyboard iPhone will be out around this time next year assuming Apple can work out the kinks.
I can't decide what I think about this notion. It's not completely out of the question that Apple would at least be thinking about a slider-style phone; some designs are quite popular with young and old alike. And we've long expected Apple to eventually release a family of iPhones similar to its strategy for the iPod product line, with different form factors and capabilities targeted at different groups.
But Apple has invested so much in the software that runs the iPhone that I would be surprised if it changed the game so early in the life of the product. Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said several times that the beauty of the touch-screen approach is that any button you need can be simply programmed with the software, rather than having to develop the software around the buttons.
Since the iPhone was released last year, there has been a noticeable uptick in phones with touch-screen interfaces from other phone makers and carriers. Still, as The Register notes, an awful lot of slider-style phones are sold every year because people still like keyboards.
We do know that Apple has applied for a patent on a clamshell-style iPhone, so it might be heading in that direction before it tackles slider phones. There's certainly plenty of room for several different styles in the fast-growing smartphone market, and Apple might be wise to hedge its bets.