I can still hear the chime. The white star inside of a red circle in an image that is engraved in the tech portion of my memory. The memories of one of my favorite phones that I have ever held: The BlackBerry Bold 9000. For full disclosure, I have issues and have owned over 100 phones in my life. Phones from all manufacturers over the years spanning 6 different operating systems. But the Bold 9000 is one of the ones that really sticks out to me. The keyboard was amazing, felt great in the hand, and you just got things done with this device. I’m reminded of this amazing phone now that BlackBerry phone hardware has most likely gone the way of the Dodo bird.
For anyone that is not aware of the situation of BlackBerry Mobile, they had a hardware licensing agreement with TCL to produce their smartphones. What this meant was that BlackBerry would work on the software and create revenue through their software productivity suite while TCL handled all the nuances of creating the hardware that said software would run on. This agreement made sense back in 2016 since BlackBerry was struggling to compete with Samsung and Apple in the hardware race after the flop that was BlackBerry 10. By taking the hardware element out of the picture and letting TCL handle that, they could focus on the software and build reliable and secure Android phones.
This partnership helped to create a few interesting phones such as the DTEK line and the KeyOne and Key2 phones. These were relatively well received, but a lack of carrier agreements doomed them in the US to make an sort of impact to keep the company profitable. Fast forward to 2020, and now TCL has ambitions of their own to make branded phones and disrupt the phone industry much as they have tried to disrupt the TV industry. This leaves BlackBerry hardware as the forgotten child and no longer a priority. So as result, TCL will not be renewing this agreement and BlackBerry hardware is now likely to be relegated as a relic of the past. As a former BlackBerry user, this is my ode to BlackBerry.
I have always thought that the idea of the BlackBerry was so fascinating. It was so aggressively business. The star of these devices was most definitely the full keyboard. In many ways, it was this incredible mobile typing experience that caused the rise and the ultimate fall of BlackBerry. The idea here was that the keyboard needed to be great for the core demographic of these phones: travelling business people. Email and instant messaging was the lifeblood and the design of every BlackBerry oozed this ethos. The screen was small, low resolution, and the cameras were terrible. But none of this mattered, because the entire experience was about getting things done.
I think back to my Bold 9000. With its trackball for navigation and spacious keyboard. To this day, that is probably the best text messaging experience that I ever had on a smartphone. The leather back just felt like a premium experience that just got out of the way, something that I often lament about the flashy glass finishes on today’s smartphones. The incredible aspect of these devices to me was the fact that so many companies made phones with full keyboards that were supposed to appeal to the business consumer. But none of those were like this. The Samsung BlackJack, Nokia E71, Palm Treo, and on down were not quite the BlackBerry. There was a mystique about this device manufacturer from Canada.
But the truth of the matter is that the hardware was only half of the BlackBerry story. The software was always secure, but the hallmark feature was without a doubt BlackBerry Messenger or BBM for short. This was the mobile status symbol back in the late 2000’s. I only first got a BlackBerry for the purpose of using BBM. It was faster, more efficient, and more enjoyable to use than standard text messaging. This was the precursor to iMessage, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. Without the existence of BBM, these messaging platforms would more than likely not exist. Many people like to credit Palm for the modern smartphone with all that was innovated on WebOS. While I agree with this, BlackBerry needs to be credited with innovating the modern messaging experience. To me, that is their true legacy.
Everything was not all easy going for BlackBerry however. Like many other smartphone manufacturers, BlackBerry underestimated the impact of the iPhone. Former Microsoft CEO and now owner of the Los Angeles Clippers Steve Ballmer once said about the iPhone “Five hundred dollars? Fully subsidized? With a plan? I said that is the most expensive phone in the world. And it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard. Which makes it not a very good email machine.” As we now know, this notion was incredibly misguided. But back in 2007 when the iPhone first launched it was not an unpopular opinion.
Countless pundits questioned the price of the iPhone and its lack of a physical keyboard, mainly because that is what every other phone on the market had. Palm, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and Symbian all were utilizing keyboards on their devices. The iPhone being all touch was just different. And BlackBerry, like Steve Ballmer and Microsoft overlooked and underestimated how successful this device was going to be. In the coming years, all of these companies would try to adopt some sort of touch interface like the iPhone, to very mixed results. Blackberry’s iteration of this was particularly terrible.
Banking off of the fact that AT&T had the exclusivity to the iPhone, BlackBerry went to Verizon. And introduced their first all touch BlackBerry called the Storm. This would be the secure iPhone killer from the trusted name of BlackBerry. There was only one problem: the screen was horrible. Instead of using a capacitive touch display like that on the iPhone, BlackBerry instead employed a technology called SurePress. This was really the first indication that BlackBerry would have a hard time adjusting to a buttonless future. Because this was a touchscreen but you had to actually click it like a button. A novel idea, but it didn’t really work. At this point, it was clear that the market was going beyond buttons and keyboards but BlackBerry wasn’t along for the ride.
Eventually, but inevitably too late, BlackBerry released the Torch in 2011. This had a proper touch display with a slide up keyboard design. I had this phone right when it was released and loved using it. It was a great experience. At this point, BlackBerry OS was not the most touch optimized experience but it was quite fluid. I would say more usable than Android Gingerbread that was out at the time. But in many ways, the damage was deeper than just making a functioning touch screen. At this point, Android had arrived and Apple had the App Store. The software that people really wanted to use was made by third party developers and the need for a very secure platform wasn’t necessarily top of mind. A similar fate would become of Windows Phone as well, BlackBerry phones just did not have the apps. And when you do not have the apps then you do not have customers lining up to buy your phone.
Over the next few years, BlackBerry kept on making new phones that had objectively good hardware but continued to suffer from the same struggles. All of this came to a head in 2016 when CEO John Chen decided to pivot away from making handsets and to focus more on software and cybersecurity in the enterprise. A smart business move, no doubt but this left a hole for BlackBerry hardware. This is where the partnership with TCL came into place. BlackBerry would make the software based off of Android, and TCL would handle the manufacturing of the hardware. A few phones were the fruit of this partnership such as the DTEK-50, DTEK-60, KeyOne, and Key2. Devices that were received well by the tech community but phones that lacked the carrier partnerships to be relevant.
This lack of success made it so that BlackBerry didn’t really prioritize pushing out Android platform updates to these devices. Which is odd considering these devices were positioned as being the most secure Android experience around. For them not to receive timely security patches when they were released from Google is most definitely a misstep. As this partnership has toiled in obscurity for the past 3 years or so, TCL has found themselves a more ambitious company. As they have continued to make waves in the TV market, they now have their eyes on disrupting the mobile phone market. At CES this year they have started that process, with three new smartphones set to be launched this year. Phones that reportedly will be in the $500 range to compete with the OnePluses and Xiaomi’s of the world. It is now that TCL no longer needs BlackBerry.
Where does this leave BlackBerry now? They still have their productivity suite on Android that can be had for $0.99 per month which is very popular at over 1 million downloads on the Play Store. The pivot to cybersecurity and auto tech through their QNX platform are the future of this company. Definitely not exciting and not something most people would have envisioned for a company that was a pioneer of the smartphone. But this is what becomes of the tech elite that cannot keep up with the innovating. Companies like BlackBerry, HTC, and Motorola have been replaced by the likes of OnePlus, Xiaomi, and Huawei. A failure to keep the trends of the business alive is a death sentence in the highly competitive smartphone space.
I will always remember BlackBerry as my first real smart device. As the finest way to communicate with people on both a hardware and software side. The reliable sidekick that was always there with me on my adventures in my early 20’s. BlackBerry Hub to this day is still the best way to aggregate all of my accounts in one place. The best way to communicate in the modern world with integrations for text, email, and all social media. I look around at today’s landscape and I see BlackBerry’s influence everywhere.
Apple’s iMessage users and how it has been transformed into a defacto social network just screams BBM to me. The simplicity of the software approach that Google has been taking with Android is also very BlackBerry to me. Even the gesture navigation that every phone has now implemented in their devices is inspired from what BlackBerry was trying to achieve in BB10. When I think of what the BlackBerry was I think of strong and functional hardware, simple and reliable software, and most of all a mobile companion. There are many great phones out there in the market today. As I look over to my OnePlus 7T sitting gracefully on the table I am reminded of how much we have come in terms of design and technological advances. Phones that are objectively amazing at lower price points than ever before. But as I think back to my Bolds, Curves, and Torches the feeling is not the same. Like the companies it competed with in its prime, it just isn’t a BlackBerry. Goodbye old friend, thumbs everywhere have lost their companion.