BlackBerry at 20
|Toronto Star 21 Jan 2019 at 12:10|
WATERLOO ‚ÄĒ BlackBerry is a name that stirs strong reactions among those who hear it. For some, it‚Äôs the poster child of cutting-edge technology developed in Waterloo Region. But for others, it‚Äôs a painful reminder of a company that was slow to adapt to changing market trends.
It was 20 years ago this month the company, then known as Research In Motion or RIM, introduced the first product to carry the name BlackBerry ‚ÄĒ the 850 email pager. It was, as former company chair Jim Balsillie said at the time, the result of nearly five years of research and an investment of ‚Äúscores of tens of millions (of dollars).‚ÄĚ
Waterloo city councillor Sean Strickland sits in his car while holding his new BlackBerry pager in this photo taken in 2000.¬†¬†(Waterloo Region Record file photo)
Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky, a former BlackBerry, continues to use a BlackBerry, long after he left the company.¬†¬†(Peter Lee / Waterloo Region Record)
For nearly a decade, the Waterloo-based company was at the top of the smartphone world and could seemingly do no wrong. But a failure to come up with new products that could compete with the likes of the Apple iPhone and other brands spelled the end of the company‚Äôs dominance in the smartphone market.
Yet through all the ups and downs, the name has persisted.
Founded in 1984, RIM began as a small fish in a big tech pond. By 1992, it still only had 14 employees, and sales were in the range of $1 million, but by 1996 it had just come off a year with $8 million in sales and boasted 80 employees, most of them involved in research and development.
But the BlackBerry changed everything.
It had an Intel 386 processor, could operate on a single AA battery for two to three weeks at a time, and could send or receive emails, all the while fitting in the palm of your hand. It sold in Canada for $549 plus $49.99 a month for unlimited usage, or could be rented for $24.99 a month plus the $49.99 air time fee and a $69 activation charge.
RIM revenue jumped 80 per cent to $85 million that year, and within 18 months of launching the BlackBerry the company had hired an additional 470 employees, bringing total employment to 740 people. It had also purchased tens of millions of dollars worth of property near the University of Waterloo to set up offices for its growing workforce.
The Record talked to four people who were intimately familiar with the BlackBerry in its early days. Each has a unique perspective on the impact of the pioneering technology.
Former RIM employee No. 450 still carries a simple reminder of the power of the BlackBerry in his wallet. It‚Äôs a sticker of the company logo, about the size of his thumb, that he peeled from the back of a BlackBerry pager in September 2001.
RIM was sending the devices to New York City in the days following the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center to aid with the rescue and recovery efforts, and all the logo stickers were to be removed from the units.
‚ÄúWe felt now was not the time to have your brand overtly out there,‚ÄĚ Dave Jaworsky said, explaining why the stickers were removed.
The former RIM salesperson was hired Feb. 1, 2000, and spent 12 years with the company. He is now in his second term as mayor of the city of Waterloo.
The Sept. 11 attacks overwhelmed U.S. cellular communications, and many people caught in the chaos credited their BlackBerrys for allowing them to communicate with loved ones and first responders.
While voice calls require space to be available on the communications system the moment a call is made, emails sent on the BlackBerry 850 and its successor, the 857, were transmitted in small data chunks that could simply wait for space on the system to become available in order to send or receive messages.
Other one-way and two-way paging providers saw their service capacity in Manhattan seriously reduced following the attacks, but BlackBerry still performed well.
Jaworsky said the first BlackBerry gained early traction in the financial and legal world because it allowed executives and lawyers to send and receive emails while away from their desks or while stuck in court.
One of his sales tactics was to get a BlackBerry into the hands of the chief executives of major companies and let word of mouth do the rest.
‚ÄúYou‚Äôd get it in the hands of a VP or CEO, and they‚Äôd say they needed to get them into the hands their subordinates,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúIt swept through, just like a wildfire.‚ÄĚ
During the company‚Äôs heyday, new employees were showing up every week, he said. By 2002, RIM employed 1,500 people in Waterloo and was beginning to license its technology to other manufacturers and developers.
‚ÄúThe cold calls were coming to me from Fortune 500 companies. It was a salesperson‚Äôs dream,‚ÄĚ Jaworsky recalled with a laugh.
The good times didn‚Äôt last, however. After Apple launched the more consumer-oriented iPhone in 2007, BlackBerry struggled to compete and its share of the market collapsed.
Jaworsky lost his job July 23, 2012, and just over two years later was elected to his first term as mayor. He still carries a BlackBerry phone with him wherever he goes and has nothing but praise for the company.
‚ÄúWe are still celebrating the invention of the smartphone right here in Waterloo,‚ÄĚ he said.
The BlackBerry was more than just a revolutionary device on Wall Street and in corporate offices. Local politicians flocked to the device early and it proved to be a useful tool for maintaining communication with constituents and city staff.
‚ÄúIt was an absolute game changer,‚ÄĚ said Sean Strickland, who was finishing up his first term as a city of Waterloo and Region of Waterloo councillor when he got his first BlackBerry email pager in 2000. He was recently re-elected to another four-year term as regional councillor last fall, representing Waterloo.
‚ÄúTo have email right on your hip was quite new and very efficient.‚ÄĚ
The city of Waterloo bought 14 BlackBerrys that year at $300 apiece for councillors and senior administrators. The devices allowed them to send and receive email, check the web and organize their days on the personal calendar.
While the city‚Äôs purchase agreement with RIM was, at the time, partly an effort to support a local company with local employees, the pager itself was also a ‚Äúfunctional device that improved communication among ourselves and with constituents,‚ÄĚ he said.
And while BlackBerry ‚ÄĒ which once controlled about half of the U.S. smartphone market and was at one time the most valuable company in Canada ‚ÄĒ would eventually shed thousands of jobs and sell much of its Canadian real estate, Strickland still hears the occasional lament for the return of the phone maker‚Äôs glory days.
‚ÄúI still have a BlackBerry and whenever I‚Äôm at the airport and I put it in the (security) bin, people always ask ‚ÄėIs that a BlackBerry? Oh, I miss my BlackBerry‚Äô,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúWhat that tells me is the brand is still worth something today.‚ÄĚ
On Jan. 30, 2013, Research In Motion disappeared in a corporate reboot that saw RIM adopt the name of its most iconic device.
‚ÄúFrom this point forward ‚ÄĒ we are BlackBerry. One brand. One promise,‚ÄĚ said then-CEO Thorsten Heins during the launch event for the new BlackBerry 10 phone. ‚ÄúOur customers use a BlackBerry, our employees work for BlackBerry and our shareholders are owners of BlackBerry.‚ÄĚ
That decision may have seemed obvious in 2013, but 14 years earlier the name ‚ÄúBlackBerry‚ÄĚ wasn‚Äôt met with the same fanfare.
‚ÄúIt was controversial,‚ÄĚ admits Mark Guibert, who was just 33 when he joined RIM in 1997 and retired from the company 15 years later in 2012, just prior to the company‚Äôs rebranding. He oversaw corporate marketing and brand management for 12 years and was senior vice-president in the office of the CEO and senior adviser to the management team.
He was among the small group of people in the room when Lexicon Branding pitched the name BlackBerry. Lexicon‚Äôs website still boasts the company‚Äôs link to the name, stating it ‚Äúsignalled a more natural, engaging way to communicate, and the name didn‚Äôt box in the brand‚Äôs potential for growth.‚ÄĚ
It also subtly connected the brand with the device‚Äôs signature QWERTY keyboard that they said resembled blackberry fruit.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think there was a close No. 2,‚ÄĚ said Guibert of other possible names. He can‚Äôt even recall the other options available at the time.
The addictive nature of smartphones and other hand-held devices is well understood today as tech companies, games and websites use push notifications and alerts to encourage us to pick up our mobile devices dozens or even hundreds of times every day.
The earliest news stories about the first BlackBerry even made subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) hints at the addictive nature of the new technology.
When it launched, RIM offered a 30-day, money-back guarantee for BlackBerrys and halved the monthly data fee for the first 12 months. The company‚Äôs co-founder and president was clear about the motivation behind the deals.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre trying to remove any last objections to trying this addictive technology,‚ÄĚ Mike Lazaridis said at the time.
And when former Kitchener mayor Carl Zehr was asked about his BlackBerry in 2000, he told The Record, ‚ÄúI remember (Balsillie) saying I would be hooked on it forever three days after I started using it.‚ÄĚ
This addictiveness earned the BlackBerry a nickname ‚ÄĒ CrackBerry.
In 2006, Winnipeg‚Äôs Kevin Michaluk helped immortalize the name when he founded the website Crackberry.com , a place for fans of the phones to virtually meet and chat about RIM, learn about new devices, read product reviews and blog about their experiences.
The idea for the website came to him one night when he and a group of friends were at a bar and completely ignoring each other because they were scrolling, typing and browsing with their BlackBerry phones.
‚ÄúThe earliest references (to CrackBerry) go back to Wall Street in the early 2000s,‚ÄĚ he said. Webster‚Äôs Dictionary named CrackBerry its word of the year in 2006, and soon after Michaluk was getting multiple requests to buy the domain name.
For Michaluk it‚Äôs a term of endearment ‚ÄĒ a device people simply didn‚Äôt want to put down.
And while he started as a fanboy for the brand, his website quickly developed into a full-time job with millions of unique visitors each month. It was eventually purchased by Florida-based Smartphone Experts; it started selling BlackBerry phones, apps and accessories through the site, as well as reviewing and analyzing phones as they were released.