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

Whet Moser
Marker
Published in
6 min readNov 11, 2020

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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…

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Whet Moser
Marker

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