In all, I’ve written more than 300 articles about BlackBerry devices and Research in Motion, as the phone maker was long named. While I never owned a BlackBerry, out of stinginess more than anything else, I did borrow one occasionally. My first BlackBerry article for The Times, published in January 1999, offered little suggestion that the device would turn Research in Motion into Canada’s most valuable corporation and ultimately develop an almost cultish following among users. It was the second-to-last item in a long list appearing in Circuits, The Times’s former weekly technology section, and it described an “E-mail-ready pager” that was roughly the shape of a credit card and ran off a single AA battery. (While its functions were limited, adjusted for inflation, the original version of the BlackBerry cost roughly $650.)
BlackBerry was once the most valuable corporation in Canada and a global tech force. This week marked the final stage in the company’s demise as a phone manufacturer. For many years, all of my job for The New York Times revolved around BlackBerrys. But, as of this week, Canada’s once-promising tech industry has faded away as a smartphone manufacturer. Interruptions to BlackBerry service used to be significant news at The New York Times and other news organisations across the world. However, the company’s decision to permanently shut down BlackBerry email, BlackBerry Messenger, and other services required to run majority of its phones, which went into effect Tuesday, received far less publicity.
I took one of those original BlackBerrys cross-country skiing and sent an email from a cabin along the trails just for the sheer novelty of it. Now, of course, I’m happiest skiing where there’s no signal that allows emails, texts and Slack messages to follow me. What I didn’t foresee was how important the BlackBerry’s physical keyboard would be to its success, as well as to how it would be used: “The pager’s itty-bitty keyboard, however, will discourage long-winded messaging,” I wrote.
And that security went beyond email and messaging. Early on, Mike Lazaridis, the co-founder of RIM and the driving force behind the company’s technology, boasted to me that there were no cameras on BlackBerrys because corporate and government security users didn’t want them. As RIM struggled to figure out what consumers wanted, it tried a something-for-everybody approach. In 2011, the company was unable to tell me how many different models it offered for an article in which I described its lineup this way: “There are BlackBerrys that flip, BlackBerrys that slide, BlackBerrys with touch screens, BlackBerrys with touch screens and keyboards, BlackBerrys with full keyboards, BlackBerrys with compact keyboards, high-end BlackBerrys and low-priced models.” In RIM’s efforts to cater to everyone, it gradually attracted almost no one.
In the device’s early years, when BlackBerrys were overwhelmingly bought by corporations and government agencies, RIM’s executives clearly catered to the information technology department heads who approved the purchase of the phones en masse, not the phone users themselves. In a time when there was far more anxiety about email security in general, I.T. bosses had to be persuaded that wireless emails could be kept safe from hackers’ eyes. More than anything, BlackBerry was selling the idea that the unique network its devices operated through provided absolute security.
By 2011 of course, the iPhone was well established. RIM’s executives were initially dismissive of Apple’s offering. It lacked, of course, a physical keyboard. Shortly after the iPhone was released, one senior RIM executive brought up at the end of an interview what he saw as the iPhone’s fatal flaw. Unlike BlackBerrys, he noted, iPhones couldn’t lower wireless data costs by compressing web pages. They were, he declared, “bandwidth inefficient.”
Assuming that they knew anything about bandwidth efficiency, consumers didn’t really care. Smartphones had become all about software, not keyboards — a fact BlackBerry’s executives were slow to accept. “They are not idiots, but they’ve behaved like idiots,” Jean-Louis Gassée, a former Apple executive, told me in 2011.