Blackberry Season

By Surowiecki, James | The New Yorker, February 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Blackberry Season


Surowiecki, James, The New Yorker


Five years ago, Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, was one of the most acclaimed technology companies in the world. The BlackBerry dominated the smartphone market, was a staple of the business world, and had helped make texting a mainstream practice. Terrifically profitable, the phone became a cultural touchstone--in 2006, a Webster's dictionary made "CrackBerry" its word of the year.

These days, it seems more like the SlackBerry. Thanks to the iPhone and Android devices, R.I.M.'s smartphone market share has plummeted; in the U.S., according to one estimate, it fell from forty-four per cent in 2009 to just ten per cent last year. The BlackBerry's reputed addictiveness now looks like a myth; a recent study found that only a third of users planned to stick with it the next time they upgraded. R.I.M.'s stock price is down seventy-five per cent in the past year, and two weeks ago the company was forced to bring in a new C.E.O. The Times wondered recently whether the BlackBerry will go the way of technological dodoes like the pager.

The easy explanation for what happened to R.I.M. is that, like so many other companies, it got run over by Apple. But the real problem is that the technology world changed, and R.I.M. didn't. The BlackBerry was designed for businesses. Its true customers weren't its users but the people who run corporate information-technology departments. The BlackBerry gave them what they wanted most: reliability and security. It was a closed system, running on its own network. The phone's settings couldn't easily be tinkered with by ordinary users. So businesses loved it, and R.I.M.'s assumption was that, once companies embraced the technology, consumers would, too.

This pattern--of winning over business and government markets and then reaching consumers--is a time-honored one. The telegraph was initially taken up mainly by railroads, financial institutions, and big companies. The telephone, though it became popular with consumers relatively quickly, was first used principally as a business tool. The typewriter's biggest users were offices. The Internet originated in the military-industrial complex, and first found an audience among academics and scientists. The personal computer, though popular with hobbyists early on, came to market dominance only once I.B.M. introduced models targeted squarely at businesses. Historically, new technologies have been very expensive--when phone service was introduced in New York, it cost the equivalent of two thousand dollars a month--and so early adopters have generally been companies that could make (or save) money by using them. (It's telling that the biggest exception to the business-first pattern was television, where the business applications were less obvious.) In 2006, it looked to R. …

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