BlackBerry Refuses to Give Up

The smartphone pioneer is keyed up for a comeback

Last month, BlackBerry announced two new phones for 2018. Raquel Beauchamp; Prop styling: Dianna McDougall
Headshot of Robert Klara

On Oct. 20, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was aboard a C-17 Globemaster military plane bound for Libya. While waiting for takeoff, Clinton—wearing a pair of dark sunglasses—began pecking at her smartphone, her face a mask of determination. Alert to an iconic moment, a Reuters photographer clicked his shutter. National media picked up the photo, which inspired a satiric Tumblr called Texts From Hillary. Years later, it became a flashpoint in an investigation that revealed the Secretary of State was using a private email address for government business. That controversy, as we know, helped to steer an election.
Almost forgotten now is the actual phone in that photograph—a BlackBerry. And, much like Mrs. Clinton, it has a victory and defeat story all its own. Not long before the famous picture was snapped, BlackBerry commanded 20 percent of the smartphone market. At the end of 2016, according to Gartner Research, that share had fallen to .04827 percent—effectively, zero.

The photo of Hillary Clinton tapping on her Blackberry (top left) became an internet meme overnight, but BlackBerry was already famous, starting with its pioneering 5810 model (below) and the many subsequent smartphones that built on it. Unfortunately, none of them was a match for Apple: On Jan. 9, 2007, Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the stage of San Francisco’s Moscone Center (top right) to debut the iPhone, announcing his company was about to “reinvent the phone.”
Clinton: Kevin Lamarque/AFP/Getty Images; Jobs: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

But before you give up BlackBerry for dead, consider this: Last month, TCL Communications—the tech firm that took over BlackBerry’s phone manufacturing in 2016—announced two new models for 2018. “Our customers are looking for a sleek, modern smartphone,” said associate director of global communications Jason Gerdon. “And of course, we have our fantastic BlackBerry security and privacy features.” These days, BlackBerry the brand is a prospering software and cybersecurity concern. But the smartphone end of the business? Well, that could use a recharge.
The company that would become BlackBerry started in 1985 as Research in Motion (RIM). In the early years, the Canadian tech firm stuck to two-way pagers. The game-changer arrived in 2002, when RIM introduced the BlackBerry 5810, a handheld device that combined the features of a cellphone with a tiny keyboard that enabled both email and web browsing. After that, the world was never the same. Within a year, BlackBerry’s 7200 series hatched the term “CrackBerry,” a catchy (if somewhat tasteless) nickname that conveyed how quickly Americans had become dependent on the new device.

The keyboard: The most identifiable part of the BlackBerry, this tiny-button keyboard was a bridge from the analog to the digital for millions, and it’s still a trademark. The screen: Introduced last year, BlackBerry’s KEYone boasts an IPS LCD screen whose 433 pixels per inch actually beats the resolution of Apple’s iPhone 6. The camera: BlackBerrys came with cameras starting with the 8100’s 1.3 megapixel camera in 2006, but the KEYone boasts 12 mexapixels and a dual-tone flash.
Raquel Beauchamp; Prop styling: Dianna McDougall

By 2007, BlackBerry had added a built-in camera and a color screen. It had pioneered the smartphone segment and looked poised to rule it—at least, until Steve Jobs took the stage at Macworld and pulled this new thing called an iPhone from his pocket. “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone,” he announced.

In 2001, RIM hired Lexicon Branding in Sausalito, Calif., to come up with a catchy name for its new handheld devices. Someone at the firm observed that the tiny keyboard buttons resembled the bumps—called drupelets—on a blackberry. The name of the bramble fruit stuck. In 2013, RIM changed its corporate name to BlackBerry, too.
Blackberries: iStock Photo

And Apple did. With its full web browser, a touchscreen keypad and, most significantly, its downloadable apps, the iPhone expanded the smartphone universe the way the Big Bang expanded the actual one. According to marketing consultant David Deal, the resulting divide was definitional. “BlackBerry got the population using it for email, text and browsing,” he said. “Apple helped us understand how the phone could be a lifestyle device.”
BlackBerry switched to Android’s OS in 2015, opening the phone up to the world of apps, but by then it was too late. Now, the test is whether TCL can find enough hard-core BlackBerry fans left to give its new models a try. And who might those fans be? People who have no time for games and insist on their privacy, such as business executives and government honchos.
Which brings us back to that 2011 photo, one that Deal says “sums up the BlackBerry brand. [Hillary’s] obviously not playing games, and she’s not having fun. She’s the secretary of state, and she’s getting work done. The iPhone is for having fun. The BlackBerry’s a phone you use to get things done.”


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This story first appeared in the Feb. 19, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.