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An iPhone with a keyboard?

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It is an article of faith, of course, that whatever Steve Jobs does is right. And so, since the iPhone currently has no keyboard on it, it must logically follow that it is wrong to have a keyboard, and therefore that Steve Jobs will never produce a version that does have a keyboard.

Fervent fans can therefore see no reason to change the iPhone from its current "type on the touch screen, or not at all" design. As one of the more zealous remarked when the suggestion was even mentioned: "The only people who think it needs a keyboard are people who have never used it."

Rumours from inside Cupertino suggest that Jobs himself doesn't have this sort of religious hangup about his own work. Reports from inside mobile operators show that whether or not he ever makes it work, he is already trying to make a "slide-out" keyboard for a corporate version of the iPhone.

If this version does appear on the market, it won't be this year, and certainly won't be aimed at the consumer market. Consumers love the sleek, elegant design of the iPhone, and quickly fall in love with the on-screen keyboard.

But Steve Jobs can do the sums. In America, iPhone has perhaps overtaken Blackberry in total sales - but these sales are in what they call "the executive corridor."

Worldwide, it has not escaped the attention of mobile network execs that the bulk of corporate sales are not into the executive corridor. Rather, they are phones which are provided for staff, and the vast bulk of them have full-QWERTY keyboards - and all the best-selling ones, Nokia, Sony-Ericsson and HTC alike, have slide-out keyboards. The popular Danger Sidekick, too, has a slide-out (spin-out) QWERTY keyboard.

The market which buys these phones, wants QWERTY and they don't want to type on the screen. They "just know" that they wouldn't like it.

Arguably, they're wrong, of course. Quite conceivably, after a week of sending emails typed on the touch-screen of the iPhone, they'd "get it" and love it. But how will they ever find out?

Compare the numbers: those who have never used it, versus those who have. It may cross your mind that perhaps it would be a good option to provide if you want to increase sales and expose sceptics to the new user interface.

The issue is, of course, a classic religious wars subject. We had similar wars over Intel chips, when the faithful maintained that the PowerPC chips inside the Apple Mac family were four times faster than Intel processors, and that Jobs would never abandon them.

And before that there was the operating system. The Mac OS was inherently superior to anything *nixy and so no Unix system would be able to keep up. Before that, the Motorola 68000 family was equally sacrosanct.

Will Jobs launch an iPhone with a keyboard? He says "definitely not" and is emphatic about it. So that's that.

Well, yes, and then again maybe. What he is apparently doing is canvassing the idea with operators. "If you had a keyboard version, how many would you take?"

And he has taken this beyond just chatting: actual prototypes - not just mockups - have been sent to senior executives at some operators. I'm not allowed to even hint which operators... but I can report that the keyboard has "issues" which are not yet resolved.

In another part of the forest, of course, Apple's rivals have the opposite problem. They want touch-screen technology and they are working hard on it. And they, too, have "issues" with making it work properly.

Sources inside one operator say that there definitely will not be a slide-out keyboard this year. But, I'm told, they are definitely expecting to see one, aimed specifically at corporate buyers, around this time next year.

Like all rumours it's premature, and people can change their minds. But it's not speculation. The prototypes actually exist and they (nearly) work.

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