Apple’s iPhone launched in 2007, and that along with a subsequent generation of Google Android-powered phones would spell doom for BlackBerry. It would change culture, too. Smartphones are now so commonplace that it’s the people who are not immediately reachable via email who seem to have the elitist affectation, or at least lack the proper social graces.
Today, BlackBerry is being eulogized as yet another case study of a dominant technology overtaken by competitors, another case of an “innovator’s dilemma,” the general rule that a company that does one thing well and dominates that market has a vested interest in protecting that turf and little incentive to consider that consumer demand, needs, and taste may shift in other directions.
Once we look for more specific takeaways from BlackBerry’s decline, though, the lessons become elusive. (And I don’t mean to suggest the company is dead, especially since it still retains a firm grip on government business thanks to its more secure platform.) Perhaps one easy one is that basing your high-flying enterprise in a town called Waterloo (the company’s Canadian hometown) is asking for trouble. But on the whole, it’s hard not to sympathize with BlackBerry. This is not your classic “What were they thinking?!” case of sluggishness.
Instead, it seems more like BlackBerry had the bad luck to face two stunningly rapid and surprising cultural shifts.
The first was the collapse of the wall between our personal and work spheres. BlackBerry had achieved success as a workplace essential. Corporate IT departments were the devices’ most important customers—enthralled with the security of the system and how it could synch with any number of corporate networks. This was a serious business tool acquired, assigned, and administered by employers. The iPhone, when it first came out, was perceived as a toy, the hand-held equivalent of a Mac trying to take on the hand-held equivalent of a real work PC. And if the contest had been left up entirely to corporate IT departments, the BlackBerry would still reign. But in the end, the demand of consumers (those essential employees) to organize their entire lives around their iPhone and its astonishing constellation of apps carried the day. Our lives had become too fluid to have one digital hub for work and a different one for the rest of our lives, and it’s only clear in retrospect that instead of importing our workplace’s stolid corporate IT cultures into our homes, the creative, informal, and whimsical vibe of Apple was always going to carry the day, invading the work realm in a way that would have been hard to imagine not long ago.
The other seismic cultural shift was that intimate two-way communication ceased to be the primary purpose of handheld devices. To this day, no other device can match the BlackBerry, with its keyboard, for the ease with which you can pound out a long, thoughtful email. I have written entire articles on a BlackBerry, but I am reduced to writing like a second-grader when using the iPhone’s virtual touch-screen keyboard. The iPhone is less about correspondence and authorship than about photos, video, and short tweets. The battle for inches between touch screen and keyboard has fundamentally altered how we communicate. Twitter’s rise is the natural result of the touch screen’s triumph. It is hard, after all, to type anything longer than a tweet on an iPhone, not to mention type anything accurately, as acknowledged by those ubiquitous “pardon my typos” disclaimers on email and the zealous autocorrect.
Even friends who mock me for clinging to a BlackBerry long after it ceased being cool will admit that the BB is better for email. Then they point out that the iPhone is better for everything else. But to me, that sounds a bit like saying Car X is better than Car Y for everything except getting you from Point A to Point B.
And I am sure it sounds much the same to scores of defeated engineers in Waterloo.