LONDON: It was the world’s first smartphone. Now, barely two decades after it revolutionized the way humans communicated, Arabs have joined the rest of the world to bid a fond farewell to BlackBerry as the firm switches off life support for its classic, pre-Android ground-breaker — once the must-have device for go-getters everywhere.
The story of the rise and inevitable fall of the BlackBerry is a parable for our fast-moving, rapidly evolving technological age. Keeping pace with innovations that come and go faster than the seasons is a challenge for consumers and manufacturers alike.
“First-mover advantage,” or the benefit of being first to the market with a new category of product, used to give pioneering technology companies a decisive head start over the competition, but no more.
In its day, for example, the Canadian firm BlackBerry seemed to have carved out an unassailable niche for itself — yet within a few years had been overtaken by the myriad smartphone rivals that followed in its pioneering wake, constantly adapting and improving upon its revolutionary concept.
BlackBerry had itself been such a giant killer. One of its first products, launched in 1999, rendered the one-way pager redundant overnight, through the simple but inspired innovation of allowing users to reply to the messages they received.
The feature was introduced in a device called the RIM 850. RIM stood for Research in Motion, the name of the company behind the BlackBerry until 2013, when it finally adopted the name of its best-known product. The RIM 850 also featured an early version of the distinctive Blackberry QWERTY keyboard.
The BlackBerry brand was introduced soon after. The name was not, as some believe, a clever riposte to the Apple brand. Rather, some bright spark at a marketing firm suggested it on the basis that the device’s unique keyboard resembled the surface of a blackberry.
Holding the device in two hands and using only their thumbs to type, users quickly became adept at rapidly tapping out emails and messages on the tiny keys. For many, the BlackBerry became an addiction; not for nothing was the device nicknamed CrackBerry. Doctors began to identify cases of “BlackBerry thumb,” a form of tendonitis caused by the constant use of the least dexterous part of the hand in a way that nature never intended.
The big breakthrough for the brand came in 2003 with the launch of the BlackBerry 7230, the world’s first true smartphone. On a device no bigger than a Wall Street wallet, users could make calls, send and receive text messages and emails, and surf the internet.
It was an instant hit and, for a few years, an iconic status symbol. For a time, the BlackBerry was omnipresent in the well-manicured hands of high-profile users such as Kim Kardashian, Sarah Jessica Parker and Barack Obama.
It was not to last, however. The launch of the Apple iPhone in 2007, and in particular its touchscreen, marked the end of the brief but glorious reign of the BlackBerry. For a while, arguments continued to rage between tech commentators about which device was best — but consumers settled the debate by voting with their credit cards.
Confronted by Apple’s slick touchscreen technology, the once-innovative BlackBerry keyboard suddenly seemed like a waste of precious screen space — something that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was quick to point out.
BlackBerry responded by doing what many technology innovators do — it turned its nose up at the upstart new kid on the block, having failed to learn the painful lessons provided by similar experiences of the likes of IBM and Xerox.
When BlackBerry was put up for sale in 2013, Time magazine concluded that the company had “failed to realize that smartphones would evolve beyond mere communication devices to become full-fledged mobile entertainment hubs.”
By the time BlackBerry woke up to this reality and scrambled to update its suddenly clunky products, they had been swept aside by the relentless stream of new products from Apple, which released a new and improved iPhone every year.
In 2008, BlackBerry was worth $80 billion. Five years later, its market value had plummeted to little more than $4.3 billion. Its market share in the US collapsed from 70 percent to a mere 5 percent.
On Dec. 22, 2021, the company finally gave up the ghost and announced support for its legacy products was at an end.
In fact, BlackBerry had already moved on from phones, reinventing itself in 2016 as a business “providing intelligent security software and services to enterprises and governments around the world.”
Spectacular although the demise of BlackBerry’s smartphone business undoubtedly was, there is nothing unique about the firework-like trajectory of its rise and fall. Like so many other technologies, before and since, it was simply overtaken by others that did the same job, better.
Fax machines, Polaroid instant cameras, video cassette recorders, pagers, the Sony Walkman and CDs — the unique selling points of all these devices were replicated, improved upon and now have been subsumed into the convergence of the multiple technologies found within modern smartphones.
Each one of these now obsolete technologies continue to hold a place in the hearts of millions of people as milestones on their journeys through life. But taken together, they also mark the course of the rapid and remarkable evolution of human ingenuity and technology — and, perhaps, offer some valuable lessons that will inspire the hi-tech pioneers of tomorrow.
In reality, most of these technologies that seemed so revolutionary at the time they emerged were merely evolutionary. The fax replaced the telegram. Videotape replaced film. CDs replaced vinyl and cassette tapes. And so the list goes on.
As technology guru Joseph Awe once put it: “If you can buy it, it’s already obsolete.”
The trick for a successful manufacturer is to make its own products obsolete by updating them itself, rather than waiting for someone else to do it.
Even as consumers scrambled to get their hands on Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro Max, launched in September last year, Apple already had a note in the diary about the launch of the next iteration of its world-beater later this year.
If the industry rumor mill is anything to go by, however, there is unlikely to be anything earth-shaking about the iPhone 14, just more tinkering around the edges. Nevertheless, doubtless we will snap it up.
In the 14 years since the iPhone debuted, there have been no fewer than 33 versions of the device. And the more we want one, the more we are prepared to pay for one. The first iPhone cost $499; the iPhone 13 Pro Max starts at $1,000.
It is hard to see where the smartphone can possibly go from here, beyond the endless incremental upgrades to screens, memory and cameras. What, then, will be the next big thing in technology?
Right now, some of the most exciting developments are taking place in the fields of artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, voice technology, cloud computing and the internet of things.
Follow the money trail left by the smartphone and it seems a fair bet that another grand convergence is approaching fast somewhere down the track. Implants, anyone?
If you think Alexa and your Ring video doorbell are smart, wait until all your possessions, physical and digital, are seamlessly connected via the cloud — and, crucially, enabled with personal agency.
Amazon’s reportedly imminent smart fridge, which will order groceries for you when they start to run low, is just the start of the cool things to come.
And you did not really think that Google has given up on its Glass smart spectacles, with their heads-up display, did you? Since the device flopped with consumers in 2015 the company has been quietly developing the technology, which is now in proven use in a variety of industries.
Will any of this change the world or our lives for the better, as technology companies like to suggest? Probably not. What it will do is give data-hoovering corporations everywhere the ability to stare ever more directly and deeply into our souls, and sell us all those things we never even knew we needed.
Today, most of us seem happy with that deal — content to sign off on all those boring terms and conditions that absolutely nobody bothers to read reads in their rush to get their hands on the latest must-have innovation.
And, to be fair, the human race has been “must-having” since the dawn of time.
One of the oldest technologies is the hand ax, a crude stone tool developed between 1.6 and 2 million years ago. This technological breakthrough was arguably the most important ever made, for the simple reason that it began to make possible all the smart stuff we have produced since then.
With an ax, our ancestors could chop branches from trees, making it easier and quicker to build permanent shelters. This was a precursor to the development of settled societies and, ultimately, the first cities, the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals.
Most importantly, perhaps, it also allowed early humans to easily extract marrow from the bones of large animals, introducing a nutrition-rich diet that over time helped them develop more powerful brains — brains that would, ultimately, create the BlackBerry.