The Future

RIP Blackberry phones — you really fucked us over, but that keyboard was great

The phones that connected everyone to their jobs all the time will be missed.

The Future

RIP Blackberry phones — you really fucked us over, but that keyboard was great

The phones that connected everyone to their jobs all the time will be missed.
The Future

RIP Blackberry phones — you really fucked us over, but that keyboard was great

The phones that connected everyone to their jobs all the time will be missed.

Once upon a time, about a decade ago, the Blackberry ruled the world. Hatched by the Canadian technology company Research in Motion, the Blackberry became a 2000s cultural icon. The phone was nicknamed the “Crackberry” for the way finance types and lawyers took to it, allowing them to make their (lucrative) workaholism portable, but the “addiction” soon spread far beyond Wall Street: as a high schooler in the late aughts, I used the phone’s proprietary Blackberry Messenger (or BBM, for short) daily. As late as 2009, the Blackberry accounted for 43 percent of all smartphone unit sales in the U.S., nearly twice as much as second-place Apple.

Although Research in Motion stopped making the Blackberry itself in 2016 after years of losing market share to Apple and Samsung, the Blackberry phone brand and likeness was licensed to the electronics manufacturer TCL in 2016. The phones that TCL made ran on Android software and still resembled the original phones — right down to the keyboard with physical buttons — but they did not sell well enough.

This is why, on Monday, TCL announced that it was winding down its production of Blackberry phones, which will cease completely by this August. It likely spells the end of actual Blackberry phones, although the Blackberry company will live on, selling software and services to corporate clients.

Blackberry phones died a slow death throughout the 2010s, as people migrated to newer phones with a wider selection of functions, apps, and so on. But the Blackberry’s rise was marked by the cultural shift that is, I think, the greatest anxiety of the smartphone era: the rapid upswing in how much time we spend on our damn phones.

When Barack Obama became president in 2008, he famously fought for (and won) the right to keep using his Blackberry (the phone would become the official device given out by large swathes of the federal government, including Congress). And years before reverting to a “dumb phone” became a thing for trendsetters like Anna Wintour, magazine writers tried the same stunt to lessen their Blackberry usage. One Daily Mail headline from 2006 warned of a “Blackberry addiction 'similar to drugs,’” describing the kind of behavior we now readily associate with social media and phones more generally (“One key sign of a user being addicted is if they focus on their Blackberry ignoring those around them.”).

Though Blackberry undoubtedly pushed American work culture in the direction of always being logged on and available, you can’t chalk that up entirely to the phone. Labor laws and regulations have not kept pace with the ways that Americans work now, and there’s little to stop employers from demanding more of their workers outside of the hours of nine to five. There’s a reason countries like Ireland are considering “right to disconnect” legislation, following the footsteps of France and Spain, which have passed such laws requiring employers to give their workers space during non-work hours.

But Blackberries, for all their flaws, were also terrific phones. I held onto mine for two years and then replaced it with another Blackberry, only giving it up for an iPhone when I was well into college. BBM was a free and effective chat software in the days before “free text” phone plans were ubiquitous, and the email client was simple to use. And, of course, there was the physical keyboard — the phone’s last great distinguishing feature from the fully touchscreen iPhones and Androids that were saturating the market. These offerings still have hardcore fans.

“The Blackberry felt like the perfect intersection of utilitarian and high tech.”
Colin, 51-year-old editor

“I had a BlackBerry forever — the ones with the physical keyboard — and held onto it as long as possible,” Liberty McCoy, a 42-year-old librarian at the University of La Verne, told me over email. “I went the Kim Kardashian route of buying old ones off of Ebay until about ... 2013 or something like that and then I gave it up. Typing this on a Samsung and yes I hate it.”

“I miss the long battery life, I miss the fucking keyboard. I remember once writing an extremely detailed and lengthy email about a contract negotiation while on the crosstown bus on the way to the gym, and it simply wouldn't have been possible with the iPhone, with autocorrect and the screen keyboard,” said Colin, a 51-year-old editor in New York. “The Blackberry felt like the perfect intersection of utilitarian and high tech. It felt useful and hardworking, and pleasingly basic.”

Other former Blackberry users I spoke with said that while they missed the phone, they weren’t too cut up about the halting of Blackberry production (“I miss it sometimes but prolly just cause I’m naturally nostalgic. Brick breaker was tight,” my friend Gianni, the first teenager I knew who got a Blackberry in high school, told me).

“I missed the physical keys at first and how it made me feel more business professional,” said Chandini Gaur, a 29-year-old administrative analyst from California who last used a Blackberry in 2011. “But I’m so conditioned to an iPhone now, and the touchscreen.”

“While I suppose I could buy a new battery and maybe a few tiles to replace the missing ‘t’ and ‘y’, with BBM gone, the spirit wouldn't be the same, it would just be pure nostalgia,” Michael Lieberman, a 34-year-old attorney and former Blackberry user in Maryland told me.

There may not be many enthusiastic Blackberry users left, but I spoke with a couple of them about the news that the Blackberry phone line appeared to be reaching the end of its life. Mitch, a 34-year-old policy analyst who purchased his first Blackberry in 2015, told me that he was using his Blackberry Passport until last year, but “I had to give it up as it didn’t support some health tech I use to manage my Type 1 diabetes — but I still think it is the best smartphone ever made.”

Vincent Bevins, who is 35-years-old and a contributor to The Outline, and the author of the forthcoming book  The Jakarta Method, told me over WhatsApp that he has used a Blackberry “uninterrupted” since 2008.

“The Blackberry OS felt less like a video game — less intentionally distracting,” Bevins said. “I really, really never wanted to get an iPhone. But even staying away from Google phones felt like I was maintaining some small amount of control over my own consciousness. Just a tiny little place where I could say, ‘No thanks.’”

With the death of the TCL-produced Blackberry, it’s difficult to imagine someone else stepping in to produce more phones. The entrenchment of Apple and Android operating systems makes the potential profit margins from making phones much lower, as you never make as much money by making hardware for someone else’s software. The physical keyboard, in the age of portable Netflix viewing, tends to get in the way. And the Blackberry’s most originally loyal customers — the weird alchemy of high schoolers and finance guys who made the brand so popular — probably won’t ditch their iPhones or Samsung Galaxies.

But for some folks, the Blackberry is perhaps just a throwback to a time when people had a better handle on the technology they used. Although the iPhone and other new smartphones offer a million features, figuring all of them out is not necessarily so intuitive. Here’s how Los Angeleno Joy Wettels, a producer at Anonymous Content, described it in an email:

When I had a Blackberry in 2005, [my friend] Sarah and I were walking down the street and I was mugged by some teen gang guys and they stole my Blackberry and my FAVORITE JUICY COUTURE PURSE. I was able to look up all the numbers they called online in my phone records, and I called every single girl they called in the middle of the night and told them that the boys they were talking to at 3:36 AM were muggers and gangsters who stole my purse. I love my iPhone but I’d never know how to do that now. Thanks to my amateur sleuthing, Police caught the guys and they had robbed 13 people that week. Yay Blackberry!
Noah Kulwin is the Future Editor of The Outline.