BlackBerry: The Complete History from Pager Pioneer to Smartphone Giant to Software Savior

Overview: Once the world‘s largest smartphone maker, BlackBerry engineered a mobile communication revolution in the 2000s before being dethroned by Apple and Android. This guide explores the meteoric rise, spectacular downfall and recent software pivot of the iconic Canadian brand behind beloved devices like the Bold and Curve.

In the Beginning: Mike, Doug and the Origins of RIM

It all began in 1984 when two childhood friends decided to start a business. Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin had bonded over gadgets and electronics ever since fifth grade. They started several small entrepreneurial ventures as teens including illuminated sign boards and electronic kits, saving up to attend university later.

Lazaridis chose electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo while Fregin focused on their joint business endeavors. In 1984, Lazaridis convinced Fregin to provide $15,000 in seed funding to help start Research In Motion (RIM) – with a vision to build mobile devices like wireless modems and pagers.

Steady Growth Through the 1990s

Over the first decade, RIM quietly built expertise around wireless devices by working on proprietary data networks and point-of-sale terminals. They operated modestly from Waterloo, Ontario without much fanfare.

A major turning point came in 1996 when RIM introduced the RIM 900 Inter@ctive Pager – one of the world‘s first two-way pagers. This palm-sized device sported a QWERTY keyboard and could send, receive and forward emails wirelessly.

As Lazaridis tells it, during a brainstorming session, the team felt that keyboard resembled strawberry seeds, yellling out “BlackBerry!” – and thus beginning an iconic brand.

YearSubscribersRevenueFlagship Product
199718K$17MInter@ctive Pager 950
2000139K$85MBlackBerry 957
20021M$294MBlackBerry 5810

Buoyed by the branding and capabilities of these early devices, RIM went public in 1997 in one of Canada‘s largest tech IPOs, raising over $115M.

The BlackBerry Era Begins

In 1999, RIM launched the BlackBerry 850 – an email pager allowing mobile access without needing to log in from a computer. This on-the-go push email, combined with a tactile keyboard proved popular with enterprise users.

Over the 2000s, RIM continued launching BlackBerry smartphones with expanding capabilities – like the Pearl, Curve and Bold lines which added color displays, Bluetooth, multimedia and high-res cameras.

As this Guardian article notes, BlackBerry "[became] a status symbol adopted by office workers and politicians alike." Their unmatched emails capabilities and keyboard comfort made them indispensable for business users worldwide.

CrackBerry Fever Goes Mainstream

Between 2003-09. fueled by its signature push email and messaging, Blackberry‘s sales skyrocketed from just over a million to over 50 million subscribers as per IDC.

YearSubscribersMarket ShareFlagship Product
20031.3M3.8%BlackBerry 6200 Series
20068M10%BlackBerry 8700
200955M20%BlackBerry Tour 9630

During these golden years, the iconic devices captured hearts and minds across the globe. BlackBerry devices were a status symbol, with business users fiercely loyal to their CrackBerrys. Such was the addiction that “crackberry” became the 2006 Webster Dictionary word of the year.

The iPhone Dealt the First Blow

During Macworld 2007, Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s blockbuster product – the iPhone. With its slick touch-centric interface and powerful hardware/software integration, the iPhone redefined the smartphone landscape.

However, BlackBerry’s leaders ignored the new entrant, seeing the consumer-focused iPhone as no match to their enterprise niche. This fateful miscalculation soon proved devastatingly costly.

The runaway success of iPhones and the 2008 launch of Apple’s game-changing App Store eventually forced BlackBerry to respond. They launched the Storm in 2008 – their first all-touch device. But with an unappealing “clickable” screen and limited app ecosystem, it bombed spectacularly, cementing fears that BlackBerry simply couldn’t compete in an all-touch world.

Down But Not Yet Out

Though still dominant amongst enterprise users thanks to its messaging and security, cracks had begun to appear in BlackBerry’s armor post 2007.

Attempts to catch up like 2010’s BlackBerry Torch failed to turn the tide. In early 2011, BlackBerry hit its peak subscriber base of around 80 million worldwide. However, later that year, the writing was on the wall. Lower earnings, shrinking subscribers and delayed products led BlackBerry stocks to tank over 75%, resulting high-profile resignations.

Too Little Too Late

In January 2013, a new CEO introduced BlackBerry 10 – the company‘s last gambit at redemption. New devices like Q10 and Z10 ran the revamped OS but flopped without an app ecosystem.

Later in 2013, new CEO John Chen made the tough call to stop making smartphones and pivot to software in 2016. While devices like KeyOne with Android OS were licensed later, it was the end of an era for the pioneering phonemaker.

YearMarket ShareRevenueStock Price

BlackBerry Lives on Through Software

While BlackBerry lost the hardware race, it lives on by licensing software to automotive and IoT vendors worldwide:

QNX: The QNX OS now runs infotainment systems in over 175 million cars globally. Beyond autos, QNX runs devices from medical gear to industrial control systems.

SecuSUITE: BlackBerry‘s encrypted communication suite certified for use by US/Canadian governments to secure confidential phone calls and messages.

IVY: A smart vehicle software platform developed with Amazon that uses cloud and AI to improve car safety and battery efficiency.

So while the era of CrackBerry smartphones has ended, BlackBerry tech continues to quietly power communication and connectivity worldwide – much like how it began its journey in Waterloo in 1984.

The Legacy of BlackBerry

Very few global tech giants have risen so high and crashed so fast as BlackBerry. During its prime, BlackBerry pioneered concepts we now take for granted – push email, messaging, app stores and touch keyboards. "CrackBerry" devices became globally recognized status symbols and indispensable tools for mobile workers and executives.

However, a toxic mix of management hubris, poor software ecosystem and inability to disrupt itself quickly enough led to unprecedented downfall of this once-mighty mobile pioneer.

As tech analysts like Avi Greengart note, BlackBerry‘s "fall from dominance was nothing short of breathtaking." From a record high market cap of $83 billion in 2008, sales plummeted to near zilch within a decade – making this one of the most spectacular rise-and-fall stories in tech history.

While BlackBerry failed to build on its early smartphone innovations, its DNA survives and thrives silently powering technologies all around us – from infotainment systems to government encrypted calls to machine learning in the cloud. In 2023 and beyond, expect BlackBerry to continue its quiet resurgence around emerging areas like electric/autonomous vehicles, medical devices, industrial IoT and automation.

So is this the final act for BlackBerry as we know it? Only time will tell whether the pioneering company Mike and Doug birthed 40 years ago in Waterloo will craft another breakthrough. For now, BlackBerry seems destined to play a supporting – albeit critical – software role on computing platforms across cars, homes and cities it helped usher into existence through those early iconic devices and services.

Wherever the BlackBerry story heads next, one thing is clear – those heady days when besuited executives flaunted their CrackBerrys like badges of honor will never come back. The company will likely never dominate mindshare like it once famously did. But its DNA has permeated technology so deeply that fading into obscurity seems highly unlikely either.

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