Songs were written about the phone dubbed the ‘CrackBerry’, people found love and sex BBMing and it was also occasionally used for business – now it’s dead
Muhammad Ali, Prince, David Bowie, and now the BlackBerry: 2016’s cruel reign of terror has claimed another great. Research In Motion (RIM) announced on Wednesday that it is to stop making handsets after 14 years of serving everyone from inner-city youth to high-flying businessmen and Kim Kardashian, and will instead be focusing on software.
The BlackBerry – or ‘Crackberry’ as it came to be known due its addictive quality – was first dreamed up by the company as the phone of choice for professionals due to its easy access to email on the move. The built-in keyboard meant that typing was almost as easy as on a laptop, ideal for responding to urgent business while jetting around between meetings. Soon however, the handset found fans in unexpected places and became an iconic item inextricably linked to youth culture; the first widely-used smartphone. Songs were written on it and about it by everyone from Maxwell D to Lana Del Rey, BBM (it’s IM service) was the first widely used form of group chat post-MSN messenger and pre-Whatsapp, and the devices are thought to have been crucial for the sharing of information during the London Riots. At its peak in September 2013, there were 85 million BB subscribers worldwide; by March this year the figure had dropped to 23 million. I haven’t met anyone with a BlackBerry in years.
“Songs were written on it and about it by everyone from Maxwell D to Lana Del Rey, BBM was the first widely used form of group chat post-MSN Messenger and pre-Whatsapp, and the devices are thought to have been crucial for the sharing of information during the London riots”
I first got a BlackBerry in 2009 at the behest of my then-boyfriend so that we could keep in contact easily via BBM when I moved cities for university. Eventually he convinced our entire friendship group to join the bandwagon, and we had a thriving group chat that distracted me from my degree for about 18 months. Slowly but surely, members dropped off to join the more glamorous touchscreen worlds of Apple and Android. The friendship group itself also deteriorated and fell apart, although this was probably due to the natural rhythms of your early 20s rather than a direct outcome of the dissolution of the BB group chat. The relationship ended too, even if sources tell me the boyfriend in question was still using a BlackBerry until about two years ago.
Perhaps the BlackBerry’s biggest fan of all time (apart from my ex-boyfriend) is Kim Kardashian. Although she obviously owns an iPhone for selfies and Snapchat, Kim has always kept a Blackberry at hand too for the business side of being a one-woman empire. Always at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist, she took to Twitter in August to lament the fact that her final Blackberry Bold (a model that was discontinued a couple of years back) had died and that she was unable to find a replacement anywhere. Just over a month later, RIM announced that there will be no more BlackBerrys at all. Another high-profile fan was Barack Obama, who famously refused to surrender his device when he became President, warning officials that they would have to “pry it out of my hands” after winning the election in 2008.
So ubiquitous was BBM that for a while people stopped asking for each others’ numbers in lieu of the 8-digit alphanumeric combination that uniquely identified each user. I remember asking a boy I’d been dancing with at the club for his BB pin; when he told me he didn’t have BBM because he had an iPhone, I simply walked off until he called after me to suggest we exchange numbers instead, something that genuinely hadn’t occurred to me. Much like everything else in pop culture that is truly great, it wasn’t long before the device was immortalised in the form of song. Most well-known perhaps is UK funky artist Maxwell D’s comedic homage to the device, entitled “Blackberry Hype” and released in 2010 at the height of the device’s popularity. On the other side of the spectrum was professional sad girl Lana Del Rey’s recently unearthed ode to sexting, “BBM Baby”.
One of the possible reasons for its popularity with inner-city youth was its low price: at a time when few could afford iPhones, BlackBerrys were available both as part of accessible phone contract upgrades or with pay-as-you-go. The ‘BlackBerry Internet Services’ bundle was available as an add-on to any BlackBerry device for £5 a month, providing unlimited one-to-one and group messaging on BBM for 30 days. It was arguably this accessibility and ubiquity that led to the service’s now infamous role in the 2011 London riots, with police and politicians suggesting that the messaging service had been instrumental in organisation due to the encrypted nature of the messaging service. As noted by Kieran Yates, “It was obvious that the phone would play a part in the riots. Not because of young people keenly exploiting the difficult-to-trace communication, as many news reports would suggest, but because by then, the Blackberry was ubiquitous.”
It is testament to both the fast-moving nature of technological change in the internet age and the absolute market dominance of the iPhone that the BlackBerry has gone from must-have accessory to complete discontinuation within six years. Despite unsuccessful attempts to join the touchscreen age, a smartphone that didn’t even support Instagram until 2014 was never going to last for obvious reasons. RIP Blackberry, a phone from a simpler era, for a simpler time.