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The Complete History of BlackBerry: From Pagers to Phones to Software

Childhood friends Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin started a computer consulting company called Research In Motion (RIM) above a bagel shop in 1984. Little did they know this modest startup would evolve into the iconic BlackBerry brand behind some of the earliest and most popular smartphones.

Over nearly 40 years, BlackBerry pioneered push email on mobile devices, popularized full Qwerty keyboards, and rose to dominate workplace communication. But failure to adapt to full touchscreens and app ecosystems led to its swift decline. Ultimately, BlackBerry stopped making phones altogether, instead finding new life developing automotive software and cybersecurity solutions.

This winding journey reflects the rapidly changing tides of technology and consumer tastes. Let‘s explore the complete history behind one of the tech industry‘s most spectacular rises, falls, and rebounds.

The Early Days: Wireless Pioneers

Mike Lazaridis enrolled at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada to study electrical engineering in the early 1980s. There he met his future business partner, Doug Fregin. After graduating, Lazaridis saw opportunities to commercialize breakthroughs from his university research.

In 1984, Lazaridis and Fregin rented space above a bagel shop to found Research In Motion (RIM). Their first product was a system for integrating wireless data processors and pagers. This allowed service technicians to send data messages directly from pagers rather than locating payphones.

By the late 1980s, RIM was working on technology for mobile point-of-sale credit card processing. This caught the attention of Jim Balsillie, an industrious Harvard MBA graduate. Balsillie invested $125,000 to join RIM and spearheaded business development activities to drive rapid growth.

Under Balsillie‘s leadership, RIM began expanding internationally. By the mid 1990s, the company had a staff of over 30 developing electronics hardware and radio frequency wireless communications technology.

The BlackBerry Name Emerges

In 1996, RIM introduced an early predecessor to the BlackBerry called the RIM 900 Inter@ctive Pager. The 900 stood out with its QWERTY keyboard for efficient two-way messaging between customers and dispatchers.

As the story goes, when employees saw the keyboard layout, it reminded them of the seeds of blackberries. Hence the BlackBerry name was coined.

The RIM 900 Inter@ctive Pager was a sophisticated device for its time. It utilized an Intel 386SXLV processor, 2MB of system memory, and offered parcel tracking apps by integrating with logistics networks. The full keyboard enabled workflow improvements in the field – characteristic of RIM‘s focus on enterprise utility.

In 1997, RIM debuted on the Toronto Stock Exchange, raising over $115 million dollars. At the time, products consisted mostly of hardware like wireless modems and radio transmitter base stations.

But in 1999, RIM took a pivotal step by launching BlackBerry wireless email service in North America. This delivered secure, real-time email access tailored for businesses and eventually consumers.

RIM Revenue Growth Chart

Figure 1. Rapid revenue growth after launching BlackBerry email service in 1999.

To access the service, RIM introduced its first BlackBerry handhelds, the 850 and 957. Though lacking phone capabilities, these let users wirelessly surf web pages and manage contacts beyond just email.

The 850 and 957 leveraged advanced radio hardware, OS-level Java applications and powerful batteries to enable seamless messaging and navigation. Push email in particular drove rapid user growth as the service expanded globally.

Leaping to Smartphone Dominance

In the early 2000s, mobile phones that could access data services started gaining steam. RIM entered this burgeoning smartphone market in 2002 with the 5810.

The 5810 stood out for bundling email, web browsing, enterprise apps and phone capabilities in a compact, Qwerty-sporting device. It also pioneered the side scrolling wheel for quick navigation in the absence of touch screens.

Over the next several years, BlackBerry cemented itself as the smartphone brand of choice by appealing to business users. Its hallmarks – seamless email, robust physical keyboards, BBM messaging – increased productivity for professionals on the go.

New models dramatically boosted resolutions, battery life, Bluetooth connectivity and browsing capabilities. Choice expanded to suit preferences for Keyboards, trackballs over track pads and screen real estate.

By 2007, BlackBerry had sold over 9 million smartphone devices globally across sectors like legal, finance, healthcare and engineering. "Crackberry" addiction became a very real phenomenon.

Dismissing the iPhone Proves Costly

While BlackBerry focused squarely on enterprise users, Apple secretly plotted to launch a consumer-friendly smartphone for the masses.

When the pioneering iPhone debuted in 2007, it felt like a smartphone from the future compared to rivals. Touchscreens, accelerometers and gestures massively improved ease of use. iOS visual flair and animations outshined BlackBerry‘s dated Java interfaces.

However, BlackBerry‘s leadership dismissed the potential threat. After all, the iPhone lacked a physical keyboard optimized for email. And Apple couldn‘t match BlackBerry‘s security capabilities that encrypted data and selectively wiped devices. These were must-haves for regulated industries.

But average consumers quickly took to the iPhone‘s lush touchscreen and growing app ecosystem. It began making headway with business owners and younger professionals too.

In 2008, BlackBerry made a rare misstep with the Storm. Verizon commissioned this exclusive new phone to answer the iPhone with clickable touchscreen technology. Unfortunately, rushed hardware and software development resulted in a buggy, glitchy launch.

The Storm was panned as the most high-profile BlackBerry failure. Pre-orders topped 1 million units, but actual sales fell well short. Worse, Storm returns and support calls became a serious strain on finances and morale.

The Storm flop kicked off a sales slump made worse by the global recession. It also gave further momentum to Apple and the newly launched Android platform. Enterprise customers held off upgrade cycles as uncertainty grew.

Attempts to Save BlackBerry

Recognizing the iPhone‘s creeping rise, BlackBerry tried to answer with more consumer-friendly phones. But devices like the BlackBerry Torch failed to compete on app selection or processing punch.

Behind the scenes, years of product delays and internal disagreements took their toll. Long-time co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsille resigned in 2012, ceding control to new blood.

The next year, BlackBerry rebooted with the Z10 and Q10 – its first phones powered by the slick, new BlackBerry 10 OS. The company even rebranded itself from RIM to BlackBerry to unify its brand. However, neither model sold well enough to reverse fortunes.

By fall of 2013, BlackBerry agreed to a rescue investment deal led by Fairfax Holdings. But weeks later, the deal collapsed as no other backers emerged. Shortly after, CEO Thorsten Heins resigned, putting the future in jeopardy yet again.

A Legacy Brand Exits Smartphones

In a surprise move, BlackBerry turned to John Chen – an enterprise software expert from Sybase – to take the helm in late 2013. Having steered previous turnarounds, Chen moved quickly to cut costs and refocus R&D efforts.

Most importantly, BlackBerry began transitioning from selling devices to monetizing software and services. While newer phones like the KEYone continued receiving rave reviews, hardware was no longer make-or-break.

By 2016, BlackBerry formally exited designing smartphones to concentrate fully on software. New cybersecurity acquisitions helped the company pivot toward automotive, government and enterprise verticals. Slowly but surely, the brand climbed back from the brink under Chen‘s leadership.

Today BlackBerry provides intelligent security software securing over 500 million endpoints globally. Its QNX platform is embedded into over 215 million vehicles to enhance driver safety and experience. The legend clearly lives on!

BlackBerry‘s Pivotal Software & Services Acquisitions

While BlackBerry devices faded from the limelight, a series of major software acquisitions quietly built the foundations for an impressive turnaround. Let‘s analyze some key deals that fueled BlackBerry‘s rise as an enterprise software provider:

QNX Software Systems – $200M (2010)

Hardly known outside tech circles, QNX Software Systems specialized in ultra reliable operating systems. Their code powered mission critical systems ranging from nuclear power plants to Cisco network routers.

BlackBerry‘s leadership saw big potential in QNX for powering the next generation of automobiles. The acquisition brought top notch kernel security, safety certifications and a proven microkernel architecture.

Over the next decade, QNX became the de facto standard for in-vehicle infotainment. It now ships on over 215 million cars globally – from BMWs to Chevrolets.

Good Technology – $425M (2015)

Good Technology was a leading mobile security platform securing and managing mobile devices for governments and regulated industries. Buying the company defended BlackBerry‘s stronghold among security-conscious CIOs.

In particular, Good solidified BlackBerry‘s multi-OS strategy by adding advanced iOS and Android management. It also brought complementary mobile productivity and file sharing tools.

The Department of Defense approved Good‘s encrypted solutions across all branches a year after BlackBerry‘s purchase. This underscored the combined entity‘s gold standard reputation.

Cylance – $1.4B (2018)

Cylance developed trailblazing security products leveraging AI and machine learning algorithms. At the time of acquisition, they were adding over 1,700 new endpoints daily to its next-gen antivirus solutions.

Owning Cylance‘s maturing AI security capabilities perfectly aligned with BlackBerry‘s future roadmap. It equipped them to combat rapidly evolving malware and insider threats using predictive methods.

Months later, BlackBerry integrated Cylance into core product suites for unified endpoint protection. Together, they staunchly defend 500M-plus endpoints worldwide from impending cyber attacks.

BlackBerry Revenue Breakdown 2021

Figure 2. BlackBerry revenue mix shifting from hardware to software & services after 2016 exit.

The Future Ahead

While BlackBerry no longer sells smartphones, its software and services fuel devices across essential industries. As cars, mobile networks, utilities and cities grow more connected than ever, BlackBerry innovation helps drive meaningful change securely.

Rather than chasing consumer gadgets, BlackBerry now enables smarter vehicles, faster networks, seamless logistics and safer infrastructure. And its reliable code continues running smoothly behind the scenes – much as it did at BlackBerry‘s peak.

For example, BlackBerry recently announced IVY – an intelligent vehicle data platform co-created with Amazon Web Services. By centralizing and analyzing volumes of car sensor information, IVY aims to accelerate software upgrade cycles and enable mass personalization.

Does this pivot lay the foundations for continued relevance over the next decade? We shall see – but writing off BlackBerry seems unwise given its storied history of refusing to back down.

And if recent rumors pan out, 2023 could potentially witness the rebirth of a classic BlackBerry smartphone. A 5G model with a physical keyboard yet modern Android 11 software could trigger a bout of nostalgia.

While the hardware may look familiar, there is no doubt the newly software-focused BlackBerry has come a long way since its peaks and valleys selling mobile devices. With its legacy now firmly rooted in digital security, the future looks bright for this enduring mobile pioneer.