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Jun 17, 2022

Lars Magnus Ericsson was working for the Swedish government that made telegraph equipment in the 1870s when he started a little telegraph repair shop in 1976. That was the same year the telephone was invented. After fixing other people’s telegraphs and then telephones he started a company making his own telephone equipment. He started making his own equipment and by the 1890s was shipping gear to the UK. As the roaring 20s came, they sold stock to buy other companies and expanded quickly.

Early mobile devices used radios to connect mobile phones to wired phone networks and following projects like ALOHANET in the 1970s they expanded to digitize communications, allowing for sending early forms of text messages, the way people might have sent those telegraphs when old Lars was still alive and kicking. At the time, the Swedish state-owned Televerket Radio was dabbling in this space and partnered with Ericsson to take first those messages then as email became a thing, email, to people wirelessly using the 400 to 450 MHz range in Europe and 900 MHz in the US. That standard went to the OSI and became a 1G wireless packet switching network we call Mobitex.

Mike Lazaridis was born in Istanbul and moved to Canada in 1966 when he was five, attending the University of Waterloo in 1979. He dropped out of school to take a contract with General Motors to build a networked computer display in 1984. He took out a loan from his parents, got a grant from the Canadian government, and recruited another electrical engineering student, Doug Fregin from the University of Windsor, who designed the first circuit boards. to join him starting a company they called Research in Motion. Mike Barnstijn joined them and they were off to do research. 

After a few years doing research projects, they managed to build up a dozen employees and a million in revenues. They became the first Mobitex provider in America and by 1991 shipped the first Mobitex device. They brought in James Balsillie as co-CEO, to handle corporate finance and business development in 1992, a partnership between co-CEOs that would prove fruitful for 20 years. 

Some of those work-for-hire projects they’d done involved reading bar codes so they started with point-of-sale, enabling mobile payments and by 1993 shipped RIMGate, a gateway for Mobitex. Then a Mobitex point-of-sale terminal and finally with the establishment of the PCMCIA standard, a  PCMCIP Mobitex modem they called Freedom.

Two-way paging had already become a thing and they were ready to venture out of PoS systems. So  in 1995, they took a $5 million investment to develop the RIM 900 OEM radio modem. They also developed a pager they called the Inter@ctive Pager 900 that was capable of  two-way messaging the next year. Then they went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1997.

The next year, they sold a licensing deal to IBM for the 900 for $10M dollars. That IBM mark of approval is always a sign that a company is ready to play in an enterprise market. And enterprises increasingly wanted to keep executives just a quick two-way page away. But everyone knew there was a technology convergence on the way. They worked with Ericsson to further the technology and over the next few years competed with SkyTel in the interactive pager market.

Enter The Blackberry
They knew there was something new coming. Just as the founders know something is coming in Quantum Computing and run a fund for that now. They hired a marketing firm called Lexicon Branding to come up with a name and after they saw the keys on the now-iconic keyboard, the marketing firm suggested BlackBerry. They’d done the research and development and they thought they had a product that was special. So they released the first BlackBerry 850 in Munich in 1999. But those were still using radio networks and more specifically the DataTAC network.

The age of mobility was imminent, although we didn’t call it that yet. Handspring and Palm each went public in 2000. 

In 2000, Research In Motion brought its first cellular phone product in the BlackBerry 957, with push email and internet capability. But then came the dot com bubble. Some thought the Internet might have been a fad and in fact might disappear. But instead the world was actually ready for that mobile convergence. Part of that was developing a great operating system for the time when they released the BlackBerry OS the year before. And in 2000 the BlackBerry was named Product of the Year by InfoWorld. 

The new devices took the market by storm and shattered the previous personal information manager market, with shares of that Palm company dropping by over 90% and Palm OS being setup as it’s own corporation within a couple of years. People were increasingly glued to their email. While the BlackBerry could do web browsing and faxing over the internet, it was really the integrated email access, phone, and text messaging platform that companies like General Magic had been working on as far back as the early 1990s.

The Rise of the BlackBerry
The BlackBerry was finally the breakthrough mobile product everyone had been expecting and waiting for. Enterprise-level security, integration with business email like Microsoft’s Exchange Server, a QWERTY keyboard that most had grown accustomed to, the option to use a stylus, and a simple menu made the product an instant smash success. And by instant we mean after five years of research and development and a massive financial investment.

The Palm owned the PDA market. But the VII cost $599 and the BlackBerry cost $399 at the time (which was far less than the $675 Inter@ctive Pager had cost in the 1990s). The Palm also let us know when we had new messages using the emerging concept of push notifications. 2000 had seen the second version of the BlackBerry OS and their AOL Mobile Communicator had helped them spread the message that the wealthy could have access to their data any time. But by 2001 other carriers were signing on to support devices and BlackBerry was selling bigger and bigger contracts. 5,000 devices, 50,000 devices, 100,000 devices. And a company called Kasten Chase stepped in to develop a secure wireless interface to the Defense Messaging System in the US, which opened up another potential two million people in the defense industry

They expanded the service to cover more and more geographies in 2001 and revenues doubled, jumping to 164,000 subscribers by the end of the year. That’s when they added wireless downloads so could access all those MIME attachments in email and display them. Finally, reading PDFs on a phone with the help of GoAmerica Communications! And somehow they won a patent for the idea that a single email address could be used on both a mobile device and a desktop. I guess the patent office didn’t understand why IMAP  was invented by Mark Crispin at Stanford in the 80s, or why Exchange allowed multiple devices access to the same mailbox.

They kept inking contracts with other companies. AT&T added the BlackBerry in 2002 in the era of GSM. The 5810 was the first truly convergent BlackBerry that offered email and a phone in one device with seamless SMS communications. It shipped in the US and the 5820 in Europe and Cingular Wireless jumped on board in the US and Deutsche Telekom in Germany, as well as Vivendi in France, Telecom Italia in Italy, etc. The devices had inched back up to around $500 with service fees ranging from $40 to $100 plus pretty limited data plans. The Tree came out that year but while it was cool and provided a familiar interface to the legions of Palm users, it was clunky and had less options for securing communications. The NSA signed on and by the end of the year they were a truly global operation, raking in revenues of nearly $300 million. 

The Buying Torndado
They added web-based application in 2003, as well as network printing. They moved to a Java-based interface and added the 6500 series, adding a walkie-talkie function. But that 6200 series at around $200 turned out to be huge. This is when they went into that thing a lot of companies do - they started suing companies like Good and Handspring for infringing on patents they probably never should have been awarded. They eventually lost the cases and paid out tens of millions of dollars in damages. More importantly they took their eyes off innovating, a common mistake in the history of computing companies.

Yet there were innovations. They released Blackberry Enterprise Server in 2004 then bolted on connectors to Exchange, Lotus Domino, and allowed for interfacing with XML-based APIs in popular enterprise toolchains of the day. They also later added support for GroupWise. That was one of the last solutions that worked with symmetric key cryptography I can remember using and initially required the devices be cradled to get the necessary keys to secure communications, which then worked over Triple-DES, common at the time. One thing we never liked was that messages did end up living at Research in Motion, even if encrypted at the time. This is one aspect that future types of push communications would resolve. And Microsoft Exchange’s ActiveSync. 

By 2005 there were CVEs filed for BlackBerry Enterprise Server, racking up 17 in the six years that product shipped up to 5.0 in 2010 before becoming BES 10 and much later Blackberry Enterprise Mobility Management, a cross-platform mobile device management solution. Those BES 4 and 5 support contracts, or T-Support, could cost hundreds of dollars per incident. Microsoft had Windows Mobile clients out that integrated pretty seamlessly with Exchange. But people loved their Blackberries.

Other device manufacturers experimented with different modes of interactivity. Microsoft made APIs for pens and keyboards that flipped open. BlackBerry added a trackball in 2006, that was always kind of clunky. Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, and others were experimenting with new ways to navigate devices, but people were used to menus and even styluses. And they seemed to prefer a look and feel that seemed like what they used for the menuing control systems on HVAC controls, video games, and even the iPod. 

The Eye Of The Storm
A new paradigm was on the way. Apple's iPhone was released in 2007 and Google's Android OS in 2008. By then the BlackBerry Pearl was shipping and it was clear which devices were better.

No one saw the two biggest threats coming. Apple was a consumer company. They were slow to add ActiveSync policies, which many thought would be the corporate answer to mobile management as group policies in Active Directory had become for desktops. Apple  and Google were slow to take the market, as BlackBerry continued to dominate the smartphone industry well into 2010, especially once then-president Barack Obama strong-armed the NSA into allowing him to use a special version of the BlackBerry 8830 World Edition for official communiques. Other world leaders followed suit, as did the leaders of global companies that had previously been luddites when it came to constantly being online. Even Eric Schmidt, then chairman of google loved his Crackberry in 2013, 5 years after the arrival of Android.

Looking back, we can see a steady rise in iPhone sales up to the iPhone 4, released in 2010. Many still said they loved the keyboard on their BlackBerries. Organizations had built BES into their networks and had policies dating back to NIST STIGs. Research in Motion owned the enterprise and held over half the US market and a fifth of the global market. That peaked in 2011.

BlackBerry put mobility on the map. But companies like AirWatch, founded in 2003 and  MobileIron, founded in 2007, had risen to take a cross-platform approach to the device management aspect of mobile devices. We call them Unified Endpoint Protection products today and companies could suddenly support BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and iPhones from a single console. Over 50 million Blackberries were being sold a year and the stock was soaring at over $230 a share. 

Today, they hold no market share and their stock performance shows it. Even though they’ve pivoted to more of a device management company, given their decades of experience working with some of the biggest and most secure companies and governments in the world.

The Fall Of The BlackBerry
The iPhone was beautiful. It had amazing graphics and a full touch screen. It was the very symbol of innovation. The rising tide of the App Store also made it a developers playground (no pun intended). It was more expensive than the Blackberry, but while they didn’t cater to the enterprise, they wedged their way in there with first executives and then anyone. Initially because of ActiveSync, which had come along in 1996 mostly to support Windows Mobile, but by Exchange Server 2003 SP 2 could do almost anything Outlook could do - provided software developers like Apple could make the clients work.

So by 2011, Exchange clients could automatically locate a server based on an email address (or more to the point based on DNS records for the domain) and work just as webmail, which was open in almost every IIS implementation that worked with Exchange. And Office365 was released in 2011, paving the way to move from on-prem Exchange to what we now call “the cloud.” And Google Mail had been around for 7 years by then and people were putting it on the BlackBerry as well, blending home and office accounts on the same devices at times. In fact, Google licensed Exchange ActiveSync, or EAS in 2009 so support for Gmail was showing up on a variety of devices.

BlackBerry had everything companies wanted. But people slowly moved to that new iPhone. Or Androids when decent models of phones started shipping with the OS on them. BlackBerry stuck by that keyboard, even though it was clear that people wanted full touchscreens. The BlackBerry Bold came out in 2009. BlackBerry had not just doubled down with the keyboard instead of full touchscreen, but they tripled down on it.

They had released the Storm in 2008 and then the Storm in 2009 but they just had a different kind of customer. Albeit one that was slowly starting to retire. This is the hard thing about being in the buying tornado. We’re so busy transacting that we can’t think ahead to staying in the eye that we don’t see how the world is changing outside of it. 

As we saw with companies like Amdahl and Control Data, when we only focus on big customers and ignore the mass market we leave room for entrants in our industries who have more mass appeal. Since the rise of the independent software market following the IBM anti-trust cases, app developers have been a bellwether of successful platforms. And the iPhone revenue split was appealing to say the least. 

Sales fell off fast. By 2012, the BlackBerry represented less than 6 percent of smartphones sold and by the start of 2013 that number dropped in half, falling to less than 1 percent in 2014. That’s when the White House tested replacements for the Blackberry. There was a small bump in sales when they finally released a product that had competitive specs to the iPhone, but it was shortly lived. The Crackberry craze was officially over. 

BlackBerry shot into the mainstream and brought the smartphone with them. They made the devices secure and work seamlessly in corporate environments and for those who could pay money to run BES or BIS. They proved the market and then got stuck in the Innovator’s Dilemna. They became all about features that big customers wanted and needed. And so they missed the personal part of personal computing.

Apple, as they did with the PC and then graphical user interfaces saw a successful technology and made people salivate over it. They saw how Windows had built a better sandbox for developers and built the best app delivery mechanism the world has seen to date. Google followed suit and managed to take a much larger piece of the market with more competitive pricing. 

There is so much we didn’t discuss, like the short-lived Playbook tablet from BlackBerry. Or the Priv. Because for the most part, they a device management solution today. The founders are long gone, investing in the next wave of technology: Quantum Computing. The new face of BlackBerry is chasing device management, following adjacencies into security and dabbling in IoT for healthcare and finance. Big ticket types of buys that include red teaming to automotive management to XDR. Maybe their future is in the convergence of post-quantum security, or maybe we’ll see their $5.5B market cap get tasty enough for one of those billionaires who really, really, really wants their chicklet keyboard back. Who knows but part of the fun of this is it’s a living history.