Can a Galaxy S II with keyboard steal iPhone sales?

AT&T’s (s t) version of the hotly anticipated Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone appears to have a slide-out hardware keyboard, something we’ll never likely see on Apple’s iPhone.(s aapl) The reported keyboard is shown on the Boy Genius Report site, which has an image of what clearly resembles a Samsung smartphone running Google Android 2.3.4. The four-row keypad is supplemented by two tall, thin buttons on the left and right; each doubles as a button for the four capacitive touch buttons on the display for search, home, menu and back functions. AT&T still sells the lion’s share of iPhones, but a high-powered Android handset with a hardware keyboard could sway some away from Apple.

I have no doubt that when Apple introduces the next iPhone model, AT&T will still continue to sell millions of the device. Surprisingly, even though the iPhone is on many networks around the world and available on Verizon(s vz) since February, AT&T appears to have sold 17.1 percent of all iPhones last quarter. Apple reported sales of 20.34 million iPhones and just days later AT&T claimed 3.6 million iPhone activations in the same time period. That’s a big number in relation to all iPhones sold.

As strong as those numbers are, there’s still money being left on the table, because no matter how good the software keyboard is on the iPhone, there are consumers that simply won’t consider it due to the lack of a hardware keyboard. I’ve heard this complaint time and again in various conversations and it comes more from women in my experience. It turns out that women with long fingernails — again, based on my conversations — can’t easily use a capacitive touchscreen keyboard. That’s just one example of many I hear; talk to a long-time BlackBerry(s rimm) user and you’re likely to hear a similar aversion to touchscreen keyboards.

So while the Samsung Galaxy S II is no iPhone when it comes to software or ecosystem, it may drive sales on AT&T’s network for those seeking the touchscreen smartphone experience but with the addition of a hardware keypad. The Galaxy S II is certainly powerful enough to please with Samsung’s 1.2 GHz dual-core processor; early benchmarks from the overseas model show it to run rings around most other smartphones. A Super AMOLED Plus display brings vibrant colors that draw the eye. And even with a peppy processor, early reviews show the phone capable of lasting a full day on a single charge. It’s no wonder the Galaxy S II is the company’s fastest selling smartphone with 3 million sales in 55 days.

Hardware keyboard aside, potential customers will still focus on iOS vs Android as a major part of their purchase decision. But if these folks consider the two platforms to be “close enough” to parity, a keyboard could help Samsung move more Galaxy S II smartphones on AT&T. And given AT&T’s importance to iPhone sales, that helps Samsung as it battles Apple to become the new smartphone king.