I walked into a meeting at a Silicon Valley startup and heard nothing but finger taps.
This was around the fall of 2006, or almost exactly ten years ago this week. I remember the meeting because I was covering a company that makes a projection system for virtual meetings, and it was odd to see everyone so focused on their BlackBerry devices. I had a new model in my pocket called the Pearl, and I was intent on testing it during my business trip.
Around that time, BlackBerry had a corner on business communication. People would tap out quick messages and hit send like they were on a pager. The most popular device at the time was the 8700, which has the iconic QWERTY keyboard. Really, it’s the one that defined BlackBerry and used the same basic shape as the original pager models from 4-5 years before then.
I took out the Pearl and sat in my chair. It was rose red, so it stuck out in the room. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember a sinking feeling. I typed on the angled keypad, making so many mistakes that I decided to pull out my laptop instead.
There’s always a pivotal point when companies make a decision and you can see the wheels start to come off. A crash is not only imminent but inevitable. That moment in 2006, with a freshly minted Pearl in my hand, I knew something wasn’t quite right. A company known for making mobile messaging in business more viable had shot their own foot.
This week, BlackBerry announced they would stop designing their own smartphones. I imagine they will license the brand to a third party at some point, although I wouldn’t say it’s a hot commodity. I do like what they’ve done to pivot into a software company, helping with asset management and secure messaging, but you could say their slow and painful demise happened right in that conference room. I don’t remember any BlackBerry device quite capturing the mobile device segment ever again. By June of the following year, Apple released the first iPhone. In 2008, Google worked with HTC to release the first Android model.
What was the shift? It wasn’t just that we all learned to type on a software keyboard, or that we jumped on the app bandwagon. It wasn’t even that fact that BlackBerry failed to keep up with iPhone and Android in terms of app development. The real turning point was when the Pearl and many other BlackBerry models -- the Curve, the Bold, the Priv -- made similar missteps. They were not indispensable phones, they were not indispensable communication devices. They were confusing. BlackBerry could have pivoted to become a touchscreen phone company with stellar (and highly secure) apps, but the interface at the time led to a lot of user consternation.
I handed the Pearl around the room during that meeting. No one could figure out how to use it. While iOS and Android put the most basic apps right on the home screen, BlackBerry used a “more is more” approach and tended to put every app on the same screen. If you look back at the icons they used at the time, it was confusing to tell the difference between the one used for files, making calls, texting, or sending an email. Any innovative product has to become useable, practical, obvious, and indispensable right away. You send your first text, you answer an email, you're hooked.
Every one of the people in that meeting gave me the phone back and said no thanks. I still tried to defend it (weakly) and talk about the benefits of loading your own apps. Obviously, that became the new normal. But the Pearl wasn’t useful or intuitive enough.
The biggest lesson to learn with BlackBerry is this: Innovation requires utility. If that first Pearl and the devices that followed had someone made mobile messaging easier but added other features, if it was incredibly obvious to anyone who used that 8700 how to handle messaging, it could have become the third option after Android and iOS. They’d still be making phones.
As it stands, there was a slow, painful decline from that moment on. I didn’t like the Pearl, and I didn't like any of the other BlackBerry models. They could have been a contender. Instead, bad interface design, lack of focus, and confusing hardware made BlackBerry a bust.
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