The End of the BlackBerry, the End of an Era

As of January 4, 2022, you won't even be able to place 9-1-1 calls from BlackBerry devices.
Marcia Wendorf

On December 22, 2021, Canadian company BlackBerry announced that as of January 4, 2022, it will no longer support its BlackBerry 7.1 OS and earlier OS, BlackBerry 10 software, or BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.1 and earlier versions, cutting off data, phone calls, SMS, and 9-1-1 functionality.

This is quite a change for a company that during the aughts almost single handedly defined the era of the Personal Data Assistant (PDA) and the smartphone. This was a period when no self respecting Wall Streeter or politician would be caught dead without his or her BlackBerry.

By 2010, largely due to its enhanced security features and QWERTY keyboard, BlackBerry had 50 percent of the U.S. smartphone market and 20 percent of the global market. The company was selling more than 50 million devices per year, but a spoiler was waiting in the wings, called the iPhone, and by 2011, it had toppled BlackBerry from the top spot. In 2016, BlackBerry announced that it would no longer manufacture its iconic devices.

The history of BlackBerry

In 1984, two Canadian engineering students, Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin, founded the company Research in Motion. It was the first wireless data technology developer in North America, and it was the first company outside of Scandinavia to develop connectivity products such as modems and pagers.

BlackBerry 850/950
BlackBerry 850/950 Source: Ruben de Rijcke/Wikimedia Commons

By the time RIM went public on the Nasdaq stock exchange in 1999, the company had introduced the RIM 850 Wireless Handheld, and BlackBerry Enterprise Server Software for the Microsoft Exchange server. It also signed a supply agreement with Dell Computer, and developed a number of non-phone related projects, such as an LED system for GM and a local network for IBM. In 1998, the company's film-editing system even received a Technical Achievement Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In 2000, RIM released the BlackBerry 957, its first device with push email and internet access, although it was marketed as a two-way pager, although it had a QWERTY keyboard and many of the elements that would become smartphone staples. In 2002, the company released the 5810, the first generation of devices marketed as phones with email capability, rather than as pagers. It worked on a 2G network, used a Java-based platform, and allowed voice calls, although it lacked a built-in microphone and speaker. It also offered SMS, organizer, and even had primitive browser functionality.

The following year, the BlackBerry 7230, delivered a true smartphone. This had a color display, 16MB of storage, 2MB of RAM and allowed users to open documents, PDFs, and Excel and PowerPoint files. 

Over the next ten years, BlackBerry became ubiquitous with government and corporate customers because of its business functionality and enterprise-level security features. Even President Obama was seen with a BlackBerry strapped to his belt, and the BlackBerry Messaging service was wildly successful.

President Obama with a BlackBerry on his belt
President Obama with a BlackBerry on his belt Source: Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons

By 2004, RIM had over 2 million subscribers worldwide, along with agreements with third-party handset makers Samsung, Palm, Sony Ericsson, Siemens, Motorola, Nokia, and T-Mobile. By 2006, the company had over 4 million subscribers and was making waves with Pearl 8100 smartphone, which was aimed at the consumer market.

That year, the company went in on the burgeoning instant message craze, partnering with Lotus, Novell, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), and Yahoo! Messenger, and use of BlackBerries had been approved for UK government workers handling restricted information.

In 2007, BlackBerry had over $3 billion in revenue and a net income of $631 million, but there was a cloud on the horizon, and its name was iPhone. Even after the release of the first iPhone in 2007 and the release of Google's Android in 2008, BlackBerry continued to reign supreme, but the company initially ignored the iPhone's touchscreen and insisted that users preferred a physical keyboard.

But BlackBerry phones remained popular. One reason was that the iPhone was more expensive than the BlackBerry, it was also exclusive to AT&T (until 2011), forcing US customers to switch providers. At the same time, many people were reluctant to give up their keyboards.

However, while Apple and Google made smartphones accessible to end users, providing them with increased screen real estate, user-friendly interfaces, and multiple apps, BlackBerry continued to focus on its enterprise customers. When those enterprise customers allowed their employees to use their own devices at work, BlackBerries started disappearing, being replaced by Android devices and iPhones. 

BlackBerry's next misstep was not making its apps available on other platforms. The company's most popular app, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), would only run on BlackBerry devices, which eventually allowed third-party messaging apps such as WhatsApp, which was released in 2009, to rise.

Missteps continued in 2008 with the introduction of the company's first touchscreen device, the BlackBerry Storm. While BlackBerry knew the device had problems, with a delayed response to touchscreen clicks, it initially sold well on Verizon, who was eager to compete with AT&T's exclusive iPhone link. Then, Verizon's chief marketing officer informed RIM that, "Virtually every one of the 1 million Storm phones shipped in 2008 needed replacing," and that, "Many of the replacements were being returned as well." Due to the phone's failure, Verizon accrued losses of up to $500 million.

At the same time, RIM underestimated how quickly the smartphone market was moving. iPhone released an updated product every year, and soon other smartphones arrived with similar features. In 2010, RIM released the Playbook tablet, which didn't include native email, calendar, or contacts apps, making it useless to the company's business users. In 2015, BlackBerry tried making Android devices, but this too wasn't successful.

In the fourth quarter of 2016, 432 million smartphones were sold worldwide, however, only 207,900 of these were BlackBerries, giving the company 0 percent market share. That year, the Chinese consumer-electronic company TCL purchased the BlackBerry phone brand.

BlackBerry began licensing its brand to third-party manufacturers, and in January 2020, a Texas company called OnwardMobility announced that it would be making 5G Android-powered BlackBerry devices which would be available sometime in 2021. To date, no further information has been forthcoming from OnwardMobility and the phone has yet to appear.

Rising from the ashes

In late 2013, BlackBerry brought in John Chen as CEO, and the company pivoted to becoming a software and services provider. Today, BlackBerry is providing software for cybersecurity, critical event management, and the Internet of Things (IoT). 

The company used its enterprise security products to enter the automotive arena with its QNX operating system. In the automotive software market, BlackBerry partnered with Baidu, Nvidia, and Qualcomm. By the middle of 2021, BlackBerry automotive software was embedded in more than 195 million vehicles, such as BMW, Ford, GM, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, and Volkswagen.  The software is used in Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, Digital Cockpits and Secure Data Gateways. 

And there are still adherants who miss the keyboard — and the security of the old BlackBerrys. The question is whether there are enough of them to allow the phone to once again rise from the ashes.

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