What happened to the BlackBerry

October 21, 2011

Remember when we were the BlackBerry Nation? When we couldn’t bear to be apart from our Crackberries? A few months ago?

In one short summer, the fickle nation has wheeled on its heels and cold-heartedly dumped the ’Berry, and now bats its eyelashes at the new boys in town.

A year ago, nearly 40 percent of all smartphone users owned devices from BlackBerry maker RIM, according to the market research firm comScore. This summer, RIM’s share of the market fell to less than 20 percent, while Google’s rose from 17 to more than 40 percent with its Android. Apple’s iPhone maintained in second place with less than 30 percent.

Android and iPhones traditionally feature bigger screens (yes, size does matter), a greater selection of applications and a user-friendlier interface. Worse, the BlackBerry lost its mojo, says James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University. “People want to avoid seeming too conventional or pedestrian.”

Although the BlackBerry first appealed to the corporate world for its security features and to teens for messaging, these draws weren’t enough to stop loyal customers from leaving en masse.

“I was not willing to hold onto a BlackBerry just for BBM anymore,” said University of Maryland senior Morgan Gibson. Her friends used to say, “We’ll talk later — BBM me.” Now “they almost always say text me.”

The Blackberry earned its cachet in corporate and government environments. When RIM introduced it in 1999, it was unique for allowing employees to access their work e-mail securely on their cellphones. When the phone become more affordable, Katz said, demand from younger people grew.

Gibson said her sisters in Delta Delta Delta loved being part of an e-mail list. “Someone would write, ‘Hey, there’s cookies downstairs, come get them!’” she said. “If you didn’t have a smartphone, you didn’t get any.”

But for some, the phone’s most popular feature grew to be irritating: You can tell when a message is opened. “If you’re BBMing with a guy, you can tell when he’s read it,” said Gibson, leading to: “Why hasn’t he responded yet?”

The BlackBerry’s focus on security may also be contributing to the shift. “The strength of the BlackBerry is also its Achilles’ heel,” Katz said. “The BlackBerry was unable to move from the corporate government image into the app-world image.”

RIM acknowledges that the device had difficulty overcoming perceptions that it was largely a work phone for e-mailing — a perception the company says it did not suffer from overseas, where it entered later with both consumer and corporate services.

Patrick Spence, RIM’s vice president and managing director of global sales, said that because companies could turn off settings that limited employees’ ability to browse the web, check personal emails and interact with apps, users didn’t always realize the Blackberry’s full potential.

To reclaim the market, RIM released a new operating system in August and plans to release a “super phone” next year on QNX, software that would improve Web browsing and enhance graphics.

“I don’t think anyone is ever gone for good,” Spence said.

This isn’t the first time RIM has had to retool. It developed its first touch-screen model — the Storm — in 2008, but tech experts say it was a case of too little too late. “At that point, Apple already had such a huge share” of the app market, said Brian Jurutka, senior vice president for telecom and wireless at comScore.

In turn, developers designed their apps to work best in the largest markets — Apple and Android.

For example, two developers followed this logic in creating an app that helps college students access academic information — class schedules, campus maps and student newspapers. Ariq Azad, 18, a sophomore at Columbia University, and Andrew Freiman, 19, a sophomore at Cornell University, developed the application for both schools on the Android market and plan to release it for the Apple store next.

Both said creating a version for the BlackBerry wasn’t a priority. “I see people walking around with iPhones and Androids,” Azad said. “Even if they have a BlackBerry, their next move is an iPhone or Droid.”

Though iPhones and Droids are quickly becoming the smartphones of choice for individual consumers, changing their work phones may prove more difficult. Jarett Goldman, 25, who has worked as a financial analyst at Citigroup in New York and Hong Kong, said banks are notoriously slow in adapting to new technology.

“Banks tend to be a bit paranoid about things like safety and encryption,” Goldman said. “They don’t want to be the first people to adopt technology in case there’s something wrong with it.”

This leaves a situation in which employees carry around multiple devices: one for work and one for personal use. The same is true for many government staffers. “You definitely see folks who are carrying around BlackBerrys in addition to their personal iPhone or Droid,” said Amber Marchand, communications director for Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

Although some federal agencies are testing iPads and iPhones, many employees continue to use their government-issued BlackBerrys. In the Senate, iPhones are available to senators and their staff, according to the office of the sergeant-at-arms, but staffers say privately that many still use their government-issued BlackBerrys. A spokesman for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said it’s easier to stay with BlackBerry since it has been connected to Senate servers for many years.

Morgan Gibson, for one, has no regrets about her switch. She never used to bring her BlackBerry to the gym, dreading the red blink of new messages. “It was like someone tapping you on the shoulder,” she said. “It was a constant reminder that you were neglecting your responsibilities.”

With the iPhone, she said it’s less about rapid communication and more about interacting with all of the different apps. She worries less about responding to her messages right away and now enjoys bringing it to the gym so she can listen to her music or the radio on it.

Said Gibson, “I don’t feel the need to escape from my phone anymore.”

RELATED LINKS

Who had the worst week in Washington? BlackBerrys

In D.C., BlackBerry outage forced folks to look you in the eye

RIM: We’ve restored full BlackBerry services

BlackBerry outages spread to the U.S.

Blog Post:BlackBerry outage spurs customers to end their phone relationship

Eidler is a freelance writer and a master’s student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is a recent graduate of Cornell University.

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