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.
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.
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.
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.”