Handset Histories: BlackBerry (Or RIM If You’re Fussy)


Would you Adam and Eve it, we’ve reached that time of the week again when we unzip our bulging factual bag and deliver a heady dose of mobile tech history directly into your frontal lobe (that’s the part of the brain that deals with internet nonsense, we think). Yes, following our recent sojourns into the varied back-stories of our favourite exponents of smartphonery, we turn our attentions to the briefcase carrying, cuff-link wearing sector of the mobile world; BlackBerry.

Now BlackBerry isn’t actually the name of the company that makes, erm, BlackBerrys – they’re actually called RIM (that stands for Research In Motion) and hail from the land of caribou, maple syrup and, Avril Lavigne (that’s Canada). The company was set up by a couple of engineering students called Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie back in 1984, although they didn’t start off making emailtastic blowers and instead spent their early days developing wireless data transfer technologies such as those credit card terminal things you get in shops.

Things were chugging along nicely for the Ontario-based pair and they even found time to rustle up a two-way pager thing in the process (mind you, they did have nearly 15 years in which to get it sorted). Released in 1999, the 850 was a minor hit for the RIMmers, selling a few and even featuring in the insanely popular at the time medical drama ER. As well as getting their kit on the telly, this little LCD screen-sporting bar of soap got the businessheads sniffing around and a group of venture capitalist types all clamoured to pour their dosh into the company, something which they eventually did, paving the way for them to go massive and get to work establishing BlackBerry as the businessfella’s blower of choice. Before they did that though, they’d have to figure out exactly what a BlackBerry would be.

After a couple of years of incessant fiddling and shoving out a few more of pagers, the BlackBerry boys finally magicked up what we’d come to know as a BlackBerry – the BlackBerry 5810. This handy little device was the first bit of tech from the RIM stable that managed to combine the emailing side of things they’d identified as their niche (and were undoubtedly quite good at) with that instantly recognisable-as-a-Berry form factor, complete with portrait QWERTY keyboard. Heck, they even remembered to include the phone-calling bit on this one, although you did have to use a ridiculous headset to get in on the action. This would have been ok in the era of Yuppies and Filofaxes, but it was 2002 ferchrissakes!

Undeterred, the RIM boffins kept on keeping on and eventually managed to properly integrate the actual phone bit with the email thing they were so taken with and the result was the 6120, a device that would act as the blueprint for all future BlackBerrys. A full colour screen was added a year later when the 7200 series showed up, something that  marked the ‘we really know what we’re doing’ point for the company and garnered even more favour from the corporate world who snapped them up like nobody’s business (men).

At this point, few had heard of BlackBerry outside of city boys, bankers, cabinet ministers, although RIM didn’t seem too bothered by this, preferring to concentrate on pleasing the world of big business and eschewing the frantic and desperate race to snare mainstream consumers, leaving that to yer Nokias and yer Sony Ericssons. And who could blame them, they were raking it in. But just why were the suits so enamoured by the many keyed plastic clumps? Shirley other phones could do email? Well yes. Yes they could. But BlackBerrys had the ability to sync up with corporate email accounts (those are the ones you have at work) meaning that the briefcase-clutching executives could always be in contact with the office, a situation which inexplicably pleased them.

The reason these little bundles of plastic were bursting at the seems with digital missives was down to something called ‘Push Email’, a technology that RIM had a hand in popularising the use of on mobiles and so-called because it pushed your emails straight to your device when it’s received by the server that sorts out your emither stuff. Before RIM got busy with this tech, computers, PDAs, phones and whatever had to scan the server handling the emails at set intervals to see if you’d received owt, or you had to manually get your phone to do it by poking round in the settings. When push came along though, all this fiddling around went out of the window, and businessblokes around the world let out a collective cheer (as did RIM who realsied that they could shift loads of phones off the back of this). Nowadays of course, nearly all smartphones can pull this trick off, but it was RIM and their trusty garage full of servers that first allowed this to happen,  and is why Android, Windows, Symbian and even those rubbishy own-brand operating systems all deal with mail from Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail and the rest of them.

You could say that the whole push email thing was probably a result of the Canadians spending so long busying themselves with the wireless data transfer shtick they’d been into before they started with the hardware. Their next trick though definitely was; BlackBerry Messenger, a cool instant messaging thing that ran on RIM’s own interweb service and was just for BB devices. Fair enough, RIM can’t lay claim to inventing IM itself, but shoving it on BlackBerry devices was a masterstroke as the free-to-use service proved immensely popular amongst young folks who’d previously written of BlackBerry as ‘phones for stuffed suits’.

Anyhoo, back to the phones and by this time (it’s 2006 by the way, do keep up) BlackBerry were really steaming and brought out what people who like this kind of stuff refer to as the first modern BlackBerry series, which included phones such as the 8300, otherwise known as the BlackBerry Curve, and the candybar-style BlackBerry Pearl. The smaller Pearl, later joined by a flip version ingeniously called the Pearl Flip, was the company’s attempt to push their kit towards the mainstream by breaking away from the familiar bulky form factor. However, whilst it still retained the full QWERTY synonymous with the brand, it didn’t quite catch on as those who weren’t that bothered about hammering out emails in double-quick time simply went for other devices, and those that were stuck with the its bigger, thumb-friendly siblings. Back to the drawing board then for RIM.

By now though, BlackBerry had begun to lose the shirt, tie and cuff-links combo and were being taken up by ‘the youth’, partly down to that BlackBerry Messenger thing and partly because they started to release snazzy looking and functional handsets which presented a viable alternative to the ubiquitous iPhone, if only in a ‘look how unconventionally cool I am’ kind of way. BlackBerry were given a further boost to their image when newly elected US President  Bazza Obama admitted that he doesn’t like to be parted from his trusty BB device, something that resonated with corporate dudes (who like powerful people) and youngsters (who like cool powerful people). Sensing a change in how the brand was perceived, RIM added a couple more blowers to their roster including the Bold 9000, Curve 8900 and their first touchscreen effort the BlackBerry Storm. (They even got trendier-than-thou DJ/Producer bloke Diplo to advertise it!).

After twenty four years of existence and a decade as exponents of smartphonery, RIM had finally found a formula that worked; their corporate customers still loved the functionality of the Bold and its mates, while the new young trendy subscribers couldn’t get enough of the stylish designs and that free BBM text-prattling enabler. Which is probably why RIM said to themselves “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and kept these handsets as the cornerstone of their range, only souping them up when the tech becomes outmoded. However, the tale doesn’t end there young grasshopper, for the hardy Canadians have now taken their wealth of mobile tech knowledge and used it to conjure up a tablet device called the BlackBerry PlayBook, a shuper-shexy slate which aims to repeat the same trick as the last lot of ‘Berrys by appealing to the business lot as well as the bright young things. This tab only emerged but a month or so ago and keeps up RIM’s tradition of ‘being a bit leftfield’ by sporting a brand spanking new QNX-based operating system which enables multimedia chops so impressive that the rest of the pack will be looking over their shoulders. So next time some iPad/iPhone-clutching zealot starts wibbling on at you how Jobsy’s got the whole tablet and smartphone thing sewn up, just remind them that Apples are not the only fruit.