BlackBerry phones could be gone for good as last major firm stops making them

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TCL Communication says it will cease production of BlackBerry phones later this year when its rights to the name expire. It's the latest and perhaps lowest point in the incredible decline of the hit phone that was destroyed by the iPhone.




From August 31, 2020, TCL Communication will no longer sell BlackBerry-branded smartphones. It's because the company's rights to the name and technologies expire, so the name will revert to the original BlackBerry company, but it's not likely that new phones will appear again. The once-dominant phone has been eviscerated by the iPhone.

TCL announced the cessation in a statement that concluded how "the future is bright for both TCL Communication and BlackBerry Limited," but did not give any details.

The company has, though, said that it will continue to provide support for its BlackBerry phones until either August 31, 2022, or as long as local laws require.



There just may not be that many to support. Figures from 2017, the latest available, estimate that only 850,000 BlackBerry phones were shipped by TCL and other manufacturers that year. Apple sold 216 million iPhones in the same period.

Crackberry

It's not accurate to say that the BlackBerry range was the iPhone of its day, but it was the closest there was. From basic beginnings as a pager in 1999, the BlackBerry soon became a fully-fledged phone in 2000.

At that time, the company was called Research In Motion (RIM) and had a long history in wireless and point of sale equipment. The name "BlackBerry" was used because the small keys on the phone's keyboard resembled the drupelets of the eponymous fruit.

The phone became increasingly smart, with the ability to send and receive emails making it a beloved business tool. Users were so addicted to these phones that people began to refer to them Crackberry.

Just about the highest-profile business people in the world became fans, including President Obama.

During the early 2000s, RIM worked to get the same loyalty from consumers as well as business buyers. It produced the BlackBerry Pearl series, then the Curve and the Bold ones. A huge win for RIM with consumers came in 2005 when the company launched BlackBerry Messenger. BBM, as it was known became the WhatsApp of its day, and it solely worked on BlackBerry phones.

Enter the iPhone

Success was so good for RIM that its BlackBerry phones were seen as the ones to beat -- and especially because of that keyboard. When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, one of the chief criticisms against it was that it lacked this keyboard.

Apple knew it would be an issue, too. So much so that Steve Jobs singled out the iPhone's lack of a keyboard as what actually made it better than the competition.

Steve Jobs in 2007, dissing the state of smartphones before unveiling the iPhone.
Steve Jobs in 2007, dissing the state of smartphones before unveiling the iPhone.


Second from the left on his slide is a then-current BlackBerry Pearl 8100 from 2006. Jobs next put the spotlight on the bottom half of all these phones, slicing off the screens to show just how much space the keyboards took up.

That was one reason Microsoft's CEO at the time, Steve Ballmer, ridiculed the iPhone.

"That is the most expensive phone in the world," he said, "and it doesn't appeal to business customers because it doesn't have a keyboard which makes it not a very good email machine."

RIM thought the same. Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, authors of "Losing the Signal," about BlackBerry history, say that many in the company were confident Apple didn't matter.

"It wasn't a threat to RIM's core business," the book quotes RIM's Larry Conlee. "It wasn't secure. It had rapid battery drain and a lousy keyboard."

Mike Lazaridis, RIM founder, soon told the New York Times much the same thing. "I couldn't type on it and I still can't type on it," he said, " and a lot of my friends can't type on it It's hard to type on a piece of glass."

Given that the keyboard was seen as this killer feature for RIM, it was a sign of uncertainty in the company when they killed it. While RIM would keep coming back to that keyboard as its selling point, the company did release the BlackBerry Storm in 2008 without one.

It was a clear response to Apple, having a touchscreen-only display, and it sold well, but didn't convert Apple users and it didn't convert people who loved the BlackBerry keyboard.

In retrospect, Ballmer and RIM could not have been more wrong -- yet at the time, there was reason to think that BlackBerry's keyboard really would keep it on top.

In 2007, Apple sold around 1.4 million iPhones while RIM's sales were 6.4 million. Things were different the next year as iPhone rose to 11.6 million, but BlackBerry climbed too, to 13.8 million.

It's easy to forget that the iPhone didn't just destroy the competition, it grew the entire market, changed the very definition of a smartphone -- and then destroyed the competition.

So in 2009, RIM had its best sales up to then with 26 million phones sold, and Apple was on 20.7 million.




It was in 2010, three years after the iPhone's launch, that things clearly began to go wrong for BlackBerry, but even then, it was in a good position. Just not the best. RIM never beat Apple again, but in 2010 BlackBerry sold 36.7 million phones. In 2011 it was 52.3 million phones.

If you solely looked at RIM's sales figures, this would still seem like a great business and that 2011 figure was more than eight times as many phones as it had been back in 2007.

It was also only three-quarters of what the iPhone sold in 2011. In 2012, BlackBerry took a dip and sold 49 million, which was substantially less than half of the iPhone's 125 million.

The BlackBerry 10 OS, as shown by RIM in mockups
The BlackBerry 10 OS, as shown by RIM in mockups

Denial and action

By the time RIM was laying off employees in 2010, the iPhone was well into its stride and the iPad was released too. RIM launched a BlackBerry form of tablet called the Playbook that year.

Billboard advertising at the time tried to make it sound as if buyers who had bought an iPad were foolish. "They should've waited," said those ads. It was hard not to see "they" as referring to RIM, as the Playbook was visibly rushed to market with few worthwhile features and depending on users having a BlackBerry phone.

In 2011, RIM revamped its BlackBerry phones by producing a new operating system for them. The company did not manage the transition well, though, and alongside technical and legal delays, RIM made its first net loss since the launch of the iPhone.

A new CEO, Thorsten Heins, was brought in. He laid off people, revamped the company, and emerged as a bold and confident leader. In 2013, he renamed RIM to be called BlackBerry, and then even proclaimed the iPhone antiquated.

"History repeats itself again, I guess," he said. "The rate of innovation is so high in our industry that if you don't innovate at that speed you can be replaced pretty quickly. The user interface on the iPhone, with all due respect for what this invention was all about, is now five years old."

BlackBerry's Z10 smartphone in 2013. Source: New York Magazine
BlackBerry's Z10 smartphone in 2013. Source: New York Magazine


Heins said that in March 2013 and things were looking up for the company by then with its latest Z10 phone seemingly doing well. But by August that year, RIM was looking to be bought.

While more phones came out, more people were laid off, and by October 2013 the company even had to publish an open letter reassuring customers that BlackBerry would continue.

Heins was laid off in November 2013.

TCL Communication

The newly-renamed BlackBerry company would explore every possible combination of being bought or partnering with other companies. In December 2016, TCL Communication announced that it would be "making new, modern BlackBerry smartphones."

It wasn't just a branding exercise. In its January 2020 announcement of the end of the deal, TCL underlined that their KEY Series phones had been a true partnership between the companies.

"What made these devices great wasn't just the hardware developed and manufactured by TCL Communication," it said, "but also the critical security and software features provided by BlackBerry Limited to ensure these were genuine BlackBerry devices."

TCL has been the largest manufacturer of BlackBerry devices since 2016, but it isn't the only one. Plus, the end of TCL's license could mean that the BlackBerry company is planning to once again go it alone with new phones.

Even if it does, though, there seems no possibility that it will ever again come close to the smartphone domination it once had.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 45
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 1,626member
    One part of the decline was that for a while BB was “fudging”their sales numbers by having BOGO promotions. Get one BB and get a second one for the wife, or the kid, or your business partner for free. Moved a lot of BlackBerries but did not add to the bottom line. It also made them look desperate. I do find it amusing how back then BB made a big deal about they were secure and the iPhone wasn’t. Now security and encrypted communication is APPLE’S big selling point.
    JWSCcornchiprazorpitwatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 45
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 3,151member
    I didn’t even know blackberries were still being sold - just what do people use them for? I can’t imagine there’s much in the way of apps available. 

    When reading this story, you have to remember that the iPhone’s and iOS’ capabilities were initially fairly limited. A few versions later, when Apple opened up the App Store is when we finally started to see the potential realized. 

    Security was also more limited with the early versions of iOS, which is part of the reason BB hung around as long as it did. Companies could lock down and control BB phones better initially. Again, as iOS developed and matured, so did the security. Now, in addition to being a more capable device, the iPhone also had security and there was no longer any compelling reason to stick with BB and a lot of drawbacks to doing so. This is when the evisceration began in earnest. Like Microsoft, had BB not been so blinded by complacency the present may have turned out differently. 

    (Typed on a iPhone with a piece of glass for a keyboard.)
    edited February 2020 jbdragoncornchiprazorpitviclauyycpscooter63watto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 45
    DAalseth said:
    One part of the decline was that for a while BB was “fudging”their sales numbers by having BOGO promotions. 

    Did that impact them?  When I upgraded mine iPhone, my daughter's was free to be part of the ATT network.  Apple still sees two iPhones sold, AFAIK.

    RIMs decline was partly due to their co-CEOs arrogance and pompous attitude with respect to Apple as a threat.

       
    cornchipmuthuk_vanalingamjeffharriswatto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 45
    sirlance99sirlance99 Posts: 1,267member
    DAalseth said:
    One part of the decline was that for a while BB was “fudging”their sales numbers by having BOGO promotions. Get one BB and get a second one for the wife, or the kid, or your business partner for free. Moved a lot of BlackBerries but did not add to the bottom line. It also made them look desperate. I do find it amusing how back then BB made a big deal about they were secure and the iPhone wasn’t. Now security and encrypted communication is APPLE’S big selling point.
    Um, there are tons of BOGO’s iPhone promotions going on all the time. It’s actually pretty standard now. 
    muthuk_vanalingamwilliamlondon
  • Reply 5 of 45
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 23,019member
    Not just Apple. When Google Android took off with the heavily marketed Verizon Motorola Droid in 2009 it pretty much sealed Blackerry's fate.  Now you had the premium iPhones on the right and the more affordable and far more adaptable and varied Android phones on the left, with Verizon pushing the latter instead of their BB's. There wasn't any room left in the middle and Blackberry's reason for existing in the market disappeared, particularly with developers moving in droves to support iOS and Android and little incentive or time to work on BB apps too. 
    edited February 2020 muthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 6 of 45
    I don’t think Apple killed Blackberry, Android did with their cheap smartphones.

    Apple took the high end, and Samsung took the middle, and the army of cheap Android manufacturers that were at best financially break even took the rest.  

    Without the “free” Android OS Blackberry would have had their niche...  Unfortunately, App developers need volume so focusing on the Google Play Store was inevitable.  Blackberry without apps became irrelevant.
    viclauyycmuthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 7 of 45
    bageljoeybageljoey Posts: 1,932member
    gsteeno said:

    Did that impact them?  When I upgraded mine iPhone, my daughter's was free to be part of the ATT network.  Apple still sees two iPhones sold, AFAIK.

    RIMs decline was partly due to their co-CEOs arrogance and pompous attitude with respect to Apple as a threat.

       
    It may seem a minor point, but I think it’s important. Apple is NOT giving away phones in a BOGO offer. Never has with a top tier phone as far as I can recall. 

    In your case, AT&T is paying Apple to give your daughter a phone on the condition that you open (and pay AT&T for) a new line for 2 or 2.5 years. 

    cornchipwilliamlondonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 45
    thttht Posts: 3,981member
    I’m surprised that there isn’t a survivable niche for smartphones with QWERTY thumb boards. I don’t even think there is any in the Android world other than one-off models. 

    Should we conclude that software keyboards are only a little bit worse to a lot better than hardware thumb boards, while the benefit of more display area is huge?
    lordjohnwhorfinwatto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 45
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 9,304member
    gsteeno said:

    RIMs decline was partly due to their co-CEOs arrogance and pompous attitude with respect to Apple as a threat.


    Much like the CEO of Spotify's dismissal of Apple Music.

       

    williamlondonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 45
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 23,019member
    tht said:
    I’m surprised that there isn’t a survivable niche for smartphones with QWERTY thumb boards. I don’t even think there is any in the Android world other than one-off models. 

    Should we conclude that software keyboards are only a little bit worse to a lot better than hardware thumb boards, while the benefit of more display area is huge?
    There may be some OEM that rolls out a smartphone with a physical QWERTY keyboard now that BB is all but gone. As you mentioned there have been a few one-offs but no one outside of Blackberry was making it into a model line. Personally, I think there's still a limited market for one and some company might be able to see a little profit by addressing it. 
    edited February 2020
  • Reply 11 of 45
    bageljoey said:
    gsteeno said:

    Did that impact them?  When I upgraded mine iPhone, my daughter's was free to be part of the ATT network.  Apple still sees two iPhones sold, AFAIK.

    RIMs decline was partly due to their co-CEOs arrogance and pompous attitude with respect to Apple as a threat.

       
    It may seem a minor point, but I think it’s important. Apple is NOT giving away phones in a BOGO offer. Never has with a top tier phone as far as I can recall. 

    In your case, AT&T is paying Apple to give your daughter a phone on the condition that you open (and pay AT&T for) a new line for 2 or 2.5 years. 

    Actually, the consumer is buying 2 iPhones and getting the cost of one of them refunded via bill credits. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 45
    apple ][apple ][ Posts: 9,233member
    I remember visiting the crackberry forums some years ago for laughs and giggles.

    It was insane. Crazy people. Totally delusional. Mentally ill. Living in a completely alternate reality.


    cornchipJWSCrazorpitwatto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 45
    DAalseth said:
    One part of the decline was that for a while BB was “fudging”their sales numbers by having BOGO promotions. Get one BB and get a second one for the wife, or the kid, or your business partner for free. Moved a lot of BlackBerries but did not add to the bottom line. It also made them look desperate. I do find it amusing how back then BB made a big deal about they were secure and the iPhone wasn’t. Now security and encrypted communication is APPLE’S big selling point.
    Probably a few interesting lessons in here. BOGOF is also a Samsung tactic to push their numbers up (which is why their revenue/profit share doesn't look anything like Apple's.)

    Secondly is that the secure messaging platform on Blackberry had a backdoor key - which found its way into the public. This is why we can't have "backdoors" in iMessage, something like that will always leak.

    About keyboards: there were full screen touch devices that had slide out keyboards - they didn't take off because the problem is that physical buttons are still so limited in comparison to their virtual counterparts. Virtual keyboards enable not just multiple languages on one device, but novelty keyboards (E.g. Emoji/Stickers), various entry methods (E.g. Swipe) and AI enabled predictions - the result is that not only are virtual keyboards more flexible, but they're faster too. The other thing to keep in mind is Apple's implementation of a virtual keyboard was excellent, with intelligent changing zones based on the word being written and easy correction/cursor movement - so you didn't really have to pay a lot of attention to where you put your thumbs, and if you did make typos they were easy to fix.

    Just an amusing side-thought, Samsung's phone range at the time was called "BlackJack" and of course total rip-offs of the Blackberry range of devices.
    chiaviclauyycpscooter63watto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 45
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 5,661member
    gatorguy said:
    tht said:
    I’m surprised that there isn’t a survivable niche for smartphones with QWERTY thumb boards. I don’t even think there is any in the Android world other than one-off models. 

    Should we conclude that software keyboards are only a little bit worse to a lot better than hardware thumb boards, while the benefit of more display area is huge?
    There may be some OEM that rolls out a smartphone with a physical QWERTY keyboard now that BB is all but gone. As you mentioned there have been a few one-offs but no one outside of Blackberry was making it into a model line. Personally, I think there's still a limited market for one and some company might be able to see a little profit by addressing it. 
    I remember Typo's blackberry-like keyboard for the iPhone.  It was the only time I ever considered a keyboard for my iPhone.  It was actually a pathetic thing that RIM did to sue the maker of that keyboard simply because it looked "too much like a blackberry".  RIM's two CEO's were the most arrogant people around and were solely responsible for Blackberry's demise.  

    https://www.cultofmac.com/324443/typos-blackberry-style-keyboard-for-iphone-is-dead/
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 45
    cornchipcornchip Posts: 1,852member
    apple ][ said:
    I remember visiting the crackberry forums some years ago for laughs and giggles.

    It was insane. Crazy people. Totally delusional. Mentally ill. Living in a completely alternate reality.



    🤨😂🤣
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 45
    mjtomlinmjtomlin Posts: 2,432member
    gatorguy said:
    Not just Apple. When Google Android took off with the heavily marketed Verizon Motorola Droid in 2009 it pretty much sealed Blackerry's fate.  Now you had the premium iPhones on the right and the more affordable and far more adaptable and varied Android phones on the left, with Verizon pushing the latter instead of their BB's. There wasn't any room left in the middle and Blackberry's reason for existing in the market disappeared, particularly with developers moving in droves to support iOS and Android and little incentive or time to work on BB apps too. 

    You're right. Android sales momentum didn't take off until 2010, not until after Microsoft and Nokia failed to produce anything comparable to the iPhone. OEM's then flocked to Android. To Google's credit, they saw what the iPhone really was - the future, and "retooled" their mobile strategy to follow Apple.

    The real marketing idiocy of those platform companies was that they ALL targeted and attacked the iPhone, but ended up completely blindsided by Android.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 45
    DAalseth said:
    One part of the decline was that for a while BB was “fudging”their sales numbers by having BOGO promotions. Get one BB and get a second one for the wife, or the kid, or your business partner for free. Moved a lot of BlackBerries but did not add to the bottom line. It also made them look desperate. I do find it amusing how back then BB made a big deal about they were secure and the iPhone wasn’t. Now security and encrypted communication is APPLE’S big selling point.
    BOGO promotions have little to no connection to phone sales reported by OEM's.  Phone sales are primarily recorded when the OEM (BB, Apple, Samsung, etc.) ships their phones to their customers (AT&T, Verizon, Orange, Vodafone, Best Buy, Walmart, and other retail partners).  A sale at the consumer level is, for the most part, credited at the retailers level.  

    What you may be referring to is an accusation of channel stuffing - putting more inventory into the distribution chain than can be sold to end users in a reasonable time frame.  Channel stuffing is a tactic unscrupulous companies can use to boost sales statistics and meet quarterly numbers.  Now I don't know if BB ever got accused of channel stuffing (didn't bother to goggle it), but it would be what you're describing, not BOGO.  

    Blackberry suffered from the hubris of success.  They literally and figuratively couldn't see how anyone could derail their juggernaut.  They suffered one of the worst cases of cognitive dissonance in business history.  They saw the decline happening yet actively denied the decline was happening.  They simply couldn't believe it was possible.  This pic sums up Blackberry's mentality.
    Image result for everythings fine meme
    edited February 2020
  • Reply 18 of 45
    Never get tire of reading and watching Steve Jobs introducing the first iPhone. It's like the 21st century literally started from that moment on. Such a historical turning point in our society.
    razorpitwatto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 45
    rob53rob53 Posts: 2,562member
    Any corporate or US government people out there who are still using BBs instead of iPhones for HIPAA and classified use? I know iPhones are approved for sensitive unclassified use but wasn’t sure they were approved for classified use. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 20 of 45
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 33,001member
    gatorguy said:
    Not just Apple. When Google Android took off with the heavily marketed Verizon Motorola Droid in 2009 it pretty much sealed Blackerry's fate.  Now you had the premium iPhones on the right and the more affordable and far more adaptable and varied Android phones on the left, with Verizon pushing the latter instead of their BB's. There wasn't any room left in the middle and Blackberry's reason for existing in the market disappeared, particularly with developers moving in droves to support iOS and Android and little incentive or time to work on BB apps too. 
    It did seal their fate. losing the Signal is a very good book, available in the Book Store. I’ve been quoting from it for years. The Blackberry Storm destroyed the company. People may not remember, but the rumor at the time was that over 25% were being returned to Verizon. Blackberry denied that. The book showed that virtually 100% were returned. That was a disaster. That summer, Verizon planned to spend over $400 million promoting Blackberry. But that problem had them back the new Motorola Droid (Verizon’s name for Android phones on their network). That action made Android, which was foundering at the time, become a success.
    gatorguymuthuk_vanalingamwatto_cobra
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