Where Are They Now

How BlackBerry — Yes, That BlackBerry — Became a Cybersecurity Company

The company may once again be a 24/7 tether to work, but this time it’s invisible

A hand holding a Blackberry phone
A hand holding a Blackberry phone
Photo illustration, source: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Where Are They Now is a column that revisits once-popular companies and brands that have seemingly disappeared.

On January 22, 2009, big news from the White House broke: incoming President Barack Obama could keep his BlackBerry. At the time, the manufacturer was slightly more popular than the new president, with 55% of the U.S. mobile phone market, compared to Obama’s 53% of the 2008 vote.

Three years later, to the day, BlackBerry’s co-CEOs resigned. The company had fallen from 20% to 5% of the global cellphone market, with its shipments down 41% year over year.

But its precipitous decline wasn’t terminal. BlackBerry is no iPhone, but it’s still around, and its technology is in more places than you might think. A lot of that has to do with an acquisition made at its peak that was meant to futureproof its phones’ aging operating system, but instead vaulted it into the growing smart-device business. Before the pandemic, the Waterloo-based company placed a big bet on corporate cybersecurity, in time for the digital workforce to hitch itself to a remote future. Meaning the once-ubiquitous brand could once again be a 24/7 tether to work, but this time ambiently in the background.

BlackBerry’s creator, Research in Motion (RIM), was launched from a Canadian strip mall in 1984 by 23-year-old Mike Lazaridis, an engineering prodigy and University of Waterloo graduate who dreamed of revolutionizing wireless communication. He started with the Budgie, a computer hooked up to a TV that took text input from a wireless remote and displayed it to passers-by in malls and storefronts. An old picture from the Budgie’s debut shows it reading out “I ATTRACT CUSTOMERS” in plain, Atari-like type. It turned out to not actually be great at attracting customers, but the interface — a solidly designed keyboard that beamed words to a screen — foreshadowed what RIM would become.

By 1990 RIM had $1 million in annual revenues, largely by pivoting from the Budgie to more successful digital ad tech; one 1988 invention would even go on to win a technical Oscar. But what Lazaridis really wanted to create was a portable email gadget.

To fulfill his ambitions, he teamed up with a business mind, Jim Balsillie, a Toronto native with a Harvard MBA. RIM’s breakthrough came in 1999 with the 950, the first BlackBerry, a friendly name selected to take the edge off its nature as a work-delivery device. It ran for a couple weeks on one AA battery, all while pushing your email to you on the go. The first big customers were Merrill Lynch and Salomon Brothers.

The company went public during the frothy IPO market of 1999, and by 2000 it had raised over a billion dollars through two offerings. During the 9/11 attacks, the company’s slow but steady network held up when cell and pager networks crashed.

BlackBerry’s technology evolved cautiously, with what Lazaridis called “managed evolution,” a theory by which new models were iterations of the previous ones. The 6200 series, arguably the definitive BlackBerries, were the company’s first phones in 2003. In 2004 RIM began to make its way into the consumer market with its first non-QWERTY device, the 7100, which put two letters to a button and figured out your prose with an intuitive predictive-type system. In 2006, BlackBerry wrapped all the developments up in one product with the Pearl, which New York Times tech columnist David Pogue called the “sweet-spot champion:” good build, good screen, good battery, good UX, all the corporate features it had developed plus the geegaws that sold phones to consumers.

Then, in 2007, the iPhone happened.

Apple’s creation was not inevitably a BlackBerry killer. Google, developing Android, scrapped QWERTY plans and went all-in on touchscreen. Tentative, iterating BlackBerry, didn’t. BlackBerries used minimal data and ran for days; the company didn’t think the iPhone, a data hog that wouldn’t make it 24 hours, had a big market. They also thought the even more conservative carriers would balk at the iPhone’s network load and Apple’s freeloading App Store. They had reason for concern — iPhones nearly broke AT&T’s network in 2009 — but Steve Jobs forced the carriers into realizing such beasts were in their best interest.

Instead, BlackBerry tried to iterate into touchscreens. The Storm had a touchscreen that was also one big button; the screen had to physically be pressed down to register a selected key. It was an unintuitive compromise between the tactile keyboards that defined the brand and the full screen of the future, unlikely to find an audience even if its buggy software hadn’t been rushed to market. In the first quarter of 2009, the Storm was behind the non-touchscreen BlackBerry Curve and the iPhone in sales; in the second quarter, it fell to sixth.

“I got an email from an employee within RIM, who, after my review came out said ‘you were right,’” recalls Pogue, who panned the Storm and got a hundred responses in agreement. The employee told him that RIM had been under tremendous pressure from Verizon to get the model out by Christmas. “It was like a freight train with nobody in the cab,” the employee told Pogue. “‘Nobody could do anything or say anything to stop it. And we all just watched it happen in slow motion.’”

After the Storm, BlackBerry prepared for the future by buying QNX, a software company founded by two more Waterloo grads, Dan Dodge and Gordon Bell. “They were one of Canada’s great success stories in software,” says Sean Silcoff, a reporter at the Toronto Globe and Mail co-author of Losing the Signal, a book on BlackBerry’s rise and fall. “They designed the building blocks of a very complicated operating system, the microkernel. A customer once told Fortune that the only way to make the software malfunction was to fire a bullet at the computer running it.”

QNX’s core product was a real-time operating system (RTOS). Whereas a general-purpose operating system similar to the one on your computer or phone. It’s supposed to do a lot of things at once — not always well or quickly — an RTOS is generally designed to do one thing at a time, instantly and reliably, like deploy an airbag.

QNX was initially used in industrial control systems, and its team was supposed to create BlackBerry’s new operating system. But it was probably two years too late for the attempt: By the time QNX delivered the BlackBerry 10 OS in 2013, the same year the company rebranded from RIM, Lazaridis and Balsillie were gone and so was BlackBerry’s future as a device manufacturer. The new platform was pretty well regarded, but the company dumped it in 2015. Current BlackBerry phones are made under license to run Android, and while some have gotten good reviews, they make up a minuscule portion of the market.

But Dodge and Bell’s brilliant software was not a squandered investment. Consumers may want excess, but smart-device manufacturers want the opposite — maximum efficiency, what BlackBerry was always good at. “QNX is probably the main source of value for that company,” Silcoff says. It underpins many electrical systems in millions of cars, like entertainment systems and driver assistance, as well as air-traffic control and medical devices.

After corporate turnaround exec John S. Chen took the helm, BlackBerry made another bet on a future version of its past self. Always more of an enterprise manufacturer than a consumer one, the company’s devices had developed a reputation for their cybersecurity. In 2019, the company bought an A.I.-based cybersecurity company, Cylance, for $1.4 billion; its hope is that an increasingly distributed digital workforce, with potentially more vulnerable connected devices, will drive the demand for its product.

While the brand BlackBerry has shriveled into invisibility, the company is still substantial: Its second-quarter revenues were $259 million, up 6% from last year for a narrow $23 million loss. What it is as a company is harder to say — it’s mostly an intellectual property and internet of things software company, making a play to be a cybersecurity giant through Cylance. Not exactly the cache of the iPhone, but enterprise software isn’t a shabby place to be.

Freelance writer/editor in Chicago. Words in Marker, The Atlantic, COVID Tracking Project, elsewhere. Author of ‘Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis.’

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