BlackBerry joins the ranks of the tech dinosaurs

BlackBerry joins the ranks of the tech dinosaurs

‘Ultimate business gadget’ consigned to history as company stops making handsets

 

Nic Fildes

A BlackBerry user risks repetitive thumb strain in 2007, at the height of the company’s succss. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A BlackBerry user risks repetitive thumb strain in 2007, at the height of the company’s succss. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

 

The BlackBerry phone, whose tactile keyboard caused repetitive thumb strains as it became the ultimate business gadget no self-respecting chief executive could be without, has been consigned to history by its maker.

BlackBerry has finally hung up on its hardware division, the handset business that carried its name to all corners of the earth, after failing to rekindle the wild success of its early years.

Although phones with a BlackBerry badge will continue to be sold in markets such as Indonesia, and possibly China and India, they will not be made or designed by the company that bears its name.

In effect, the BlackBerry era is over. The days when legions of “Crackberry” addicts wandered through offices with their phone jutting out of a holster on their hip while complaining about “BlackBerry Thumb” from the frenetic typing of emails, are long gone.

The phone, which at the turn of the century was as much of a corporate status symbol as a shiny new Rolex or a Mont Blanc pen, lost its grip on the office as more iPhones and iPads started appearing on desks five years ago and only the diehards have persevered.

It has been death by a thousand cuts for the phone business under chief executive John Chen, who has slowly unwound the company’s attempts to stay relevant in the handset market.

Early days

Waterloo, Ontario is now a hotbed of start-ups and a thriving technology industry, but that was far from the case in 1984, when Research In Motionwas founded by two engineering students, Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin.

The tiny company started as a wireless data transmission business. By the 1990s, it was making point-of-sale terminals and in 1996, launched the Inter@tive Pager, which took it into competition with Motorola, then the giant of the mobile phone sector.

The move into pagers, an unloved technology of yesteryear, paved the way for a sidestep into the burgeoning handset market and RIM’s success anticipated the data-hungry habits of the modern smartphone user.

In 1998, RIM had developed a handheld device ideal for emailing, which embedded a tiny Qwerty keyboard. It was set to be called the PocketLink or MegaMail, but the technology sector’s love of fruit-based branding claimed another hit when Lexicon Branding struck on the idea that the tiny keys felt like drupelets, the pockmarks on the skin of berry fruit. Strawberry was deemed too slow sounding for a technology brand and the name BlackBerry was born.

The ability to email on the move caught fire and transformed RIM into a major player in the electronics market. Thumb-wheels for scrolling were added, the screens got bigger and soon a phone was added to the device, initially one that could only be used with an external headset.

By the time the BlackBerry 6210 was issued in 2002, the device had become a must-have tool not only for business people but also consumers who loved the keyboard. A legion of “Crackberry” addicts emerged.

Nokia and Microsoft both tried to match BlackBerry’s dominance in the enterprise market, but the Canadian company was also able to trade off its speed, reliability and security as it ran its own software and servers.

Teenage market

By the time that the BlackBerry Pearl, Curve and Bold models started selling by the millions, the company found itself as an unlikely star in the teenage market, with young users flocking to use its secure messaging product in a pre-WhatsApp and Snapchat era. Many bought those models and never bothered tapping in a phone number.

Mr Lazaridis and his co-chief executive Jim Balsillie believed the hype and would enter the stage at trade shows to the blaring tunes of the Black Eyed Peas, something unthinkable when it was solely focused on its core market of business users. A botched launch into the tablet market followed, as sales started to stutter and the longstanding management team moved aside in 2012.

Too much had been riding on the 2012 launch of BlackBerry 10, a new software platform and phone series, that was meant to go head-to-head with the latest iPhones and Android handsets.

Hubris was evident as senior executives boasted that it had 80 million subscribers and nothing to worry about. The software flopped, the phones flopped and BlackBerry – which dropped the RIM name during this period – never recovered, as its subscriber base rapidly eroded.

Mr Chen has thrown a huge amount of effort into reviving its fortunes in the corporate market with the giant square Passport phone – designed for architects and spreadsheet lovers – at least capturing the attention.

He also released Android-based handsets to broaden its appeal and added a nostalgic tinge to the product line with the Classic model that recreated the Bold design.

It proved too little, too late and BlackBerry now joins the likes of Palm and Psion in the legacy brand lounge for tech hardware. Yet like Nokia, the name BlackBerry will continue to resonate.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

 

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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