BlackBerry: A Potted History

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To write about BlackBerry is to write about Research in Motion, and vice versa, as unlike most other smartphone operating systems, the BlackBerry software has been installed almost exclusively on devices made by its author, Research in Motion. Even when it was licensed out, RIM was still deeply involved.

Research in Motion was formed in 1984 by Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin, long before the creation of BlackBerry. For a start, RIM built point-of-sale hardware, pagers, handheld email machines and two-way communication devices. It wasn’t until 19 January, 1999, that RIM released the first BlackBerry device, named simply the BlackBerry Handheld. Described as a, “wireless email solution for mobile professionals”, it ran on a single AA battery and was expected to last 24-hours. The device had an LCD screen, QWERTY keyboard, an Intel386 processor and 2MB of Flash memory. It wasn’t a phone, but a device for sending and receiving email. It was, however, the beginning of BlackBerry.

The BlackBerry software and devices we know today were still a while away from release, as a very important piece of the puzzle had yet to be introduced – the BlackBerry Enterprise Server. It’s this software, introduced on 17 May, 1999, which keeps emails, messages and calendars synchronised across the network and between phones and computers. The other service synonymous with BlackBerry phones, BlackBerry Messenger, wouldn’t arrive until 2006, and has since become one of BlackBerry’s major selling points.

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In April 2000, BlackBerry 2.0 was released with the RIM 957, an evolution of the first BlackBerry Handheld from the year before and visually very similar to traditional BlackBerry devices. It still had an Intel386 processor and a QWERTY keyboard, but also came with a side-mounted control for scrolling through menus, an internal rechargeable battery and “Always on, always connected” functionality – or a variation of what we know as Push email today.

The software is surprisingly similar to more modern versions of BlackBerry OS, but is in monochrome and with only very basic graphics. Watching this video shows anyone who has used an early Curve could probably pick up the RIM 957 and use it after only a few moments of familiarisation. With the introduction of BlackBerry 2.0, the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) became an integral part of the BlackBerry experience, so email and data related to the personal organiser could be synced between the RIM 957 and a desktop computer, or managed entirely on the handheld device.

Phone and email together in one BlackBerry device

But it still wasn’t a phone. For that, we had to wait until October 2002, and the launch of the BlackBerry 6710. The press release trumpets the 6710’s killer feature by saying, “The new BlackBerry 6710 gives customers the choice to make or receive wireless phone calls by holding the device to their ear or using the headset”. It looked very similar to the RIM 957 and the software was similar too, but it did mark the important event of bringing together BlackBerry’s desirable messaging services with mobile phone functionality into one device.

By the end of 2002, BlackBerry phones were on sale in the UK with Vodafone and T-Mobile, where they were doing battle with the Nokia 9210 Communicator, the excellent Nokia 8910 and the Sony Ericsson P800.

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In 2003, BlackBerry phones had an estimated global user base of around half a million, a figure which jumped to 14 million by 2008 and to 80 million at the end of 2012. BlackBerry became an internationally recognised name, and users became so obsessed with their phones the word “crackberry” – used to indicate the addictiveness of the device – entered into regular use.

BlackBerry phones were used by governments and businesses around the world, and featured almost as regularly on television as Apple’s iPhone does today. But despite this massive success, something went a little bit wrong, and with the benefit of hindsight, the problem could be seen coming a mile off.

Lack of innovation

Remember we said someone who used a BlackBerry Curve could use the RIM 957? That’s the problem. BlackBerry OS evolved, but never at the rate it needed to so it could stay ahead of the competition. When the first generation software looks pretty similar to the fifth generation, you’ve got a problem, especially when the first generation was as basic as a mobile operating system could get. Research in Motion played about with the form factors of its hardware, introducing the touchscreen Storm and the touchscreen slider Torch series, but they didn’t address the software issue. It was dreary, confusing and complicated next to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.

Unsurprisingly, BlackBerry began to fall from grace amongst the new generation of smartphone buyers, as they clamoured for the coolness of Apple’s iPhone and the new wave of Android phones such as the Nexus One, HTC Desire and eventually, the Samsung Galaxy S II and S III. Like Nokia, RIM hadn’t responded to changes in the market, and was slowly but surely being edged out. Similarly, it was left with the same choice as its Finnish rival – evolve, sell or fold.

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Long-time co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie stepped aside at the beginning of 2012, and in came Thorsten Heins, a German hotshot who had been with the company since 2007. He has been instrumental in pushing the development of what he considers RIM’s future – BlackBerry 10.

Will BlackBerry 10 be different enough?

We’ve seen a few hands-on demos of BlackBerry 10, and early word from those lucky (and influential) enough to be given a sneak preview of the OS, is extremely positive.There’s no doubt BlackBerry 10 is the future of RIM, but there’s no telling how long its future will be. Heins has it all in hand though, and admitted in a recent interview he’s still open to the option of licensing BlackBerry 10 to hardware manufacturers, or if all else fails, selling off the firm’s production division. As with most modern smartphone operating systems, a lot is going to depend on its app store. RIM has rebranded its store as BlackBerry World and around 70,000 apps are expected to be available at launch.

Reviewers have commented that BlackBerry 10 is a different experience to BlackBerry operating systems of old, with deeper social networking integration and a clever user interface, a unified inbox that’s quickly accessible, plus a modern gesture control system. To try and win back business users, BlackBerry 10 has a setting called Balance, which switches between a personal and work account, making it more attractive to people who want one phone for both work and pleasure. It has kept the BlackBerry Enterprise Server and BlackBerry Messenger remains too, now with the added advantage of incorporating voice calls.

BlackBerry 10 will launch on 30 January on two different smartphones, with another four expected to follow them in the coming months. It’s difficult not to be excited about BlackBerry 10, and RIM’s apparent total dedication to making it work. Only time will tell if all the effort was worth it.

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