Will BlackBerry ever be hip again?

BlackBerry's new launch reminds us why the phone might only be the favorite of middle-managing mediocrities

Topics: blackberry, RIM, smartphones, Q10, Z10, REO speedwagon, Editor's Picks,

Will BlackBerry ever be hip again?Thorsten Heins, CEO of Research in Motion, introduces the BlackBerry 10, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013 in New York. (Credit: AP/Mark Lennihan)

As I waited Wednesday morning for four different liveblogs to update with nanosecond-by-nanosecond hyper-coverage of Research in Motion’s “Hail Mary pass” to revive the BlackBerry, I found myself wrestling with a classic postmodern technology coverage conundrum. Was BlackBerry’s decision last September to embrace REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You” as a vow of enduring faith to its all-important app developers an unintentional confirmation that the BlackBerry brand is eternally consigned to corporate middle-manager mediocrity, or was it some kind of ironic hipster jujitsu move? Ha ha, wink, wink!

You see, from my cultural vantage point, REO Speedwagon signifies the death of cool and the end of rock ‘n’ roll. The song “Keep On Loving You” hit No. 1 just two months after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Need I say more?

So if I was trying to reclaim territory lost to Apple and Samsung and HTC, I’d probably look elsewhere for my cultural signifiers. But maybe I’m not the right audience. I have no idea how the band might be perceived by the software developers whose app-creating genius is essential to determining whether the BlackBerry can claw back a meaningful slice of its lost market share. If Pabst Blue-Ribbon can make a comeback, why not REO Speedwagon, or even BlackBerry? And I’ve been in enough geek-dominated conference audiences to know that the sight of Alec Saunders, RIM’s vice president of developer relations, lip-syncing the words “And we’re going to keep on loving you/Our updated SDK [software development kit] is really cool” is the kind of goof likely to generate plenty of throaty chuckles. So stranger things have happened.

(“RIM,” by the way, no longer exists. The biggest branding news from Wednesday’s product launch is that the company has dumped the name “Research in Motion” and will now be known only as BlackBerry.)

However, the reviews pouring out of the tech press, which treated the unveiling of the all-touch BlackBerry Z10 and the old-school QWERTY-keyboard included Q10,with the respect and obsessive attention to interface detail normally only lavished on Apple product launches, certainly seem to indicate that BlackBerry must be reckoned with, again.

Verge’s Joshua Topolsky dubbed the Q10 and Z10 “serious contenders” — “packing in the specs, software prowess, and services to take on even the most entrenched players in the game. This isn’t a feint or a half-step, it’s a long bomb with all the blood, sweat, and tears behind it you would expect from a company that’s lost a significant piece of its value (to say nothing of its market power) over the last handful of years.” Other early reviews have been a bit more equivocal. From the descriptions, the phones sound interesting, even though it’s very hard to say what might click with consumers.

Heck, if it’s true, as CEO Thorsten Heins boasted, that the BlackBerry offers “the absolutely best typing mobile experience,” that might be all the phone needs to succeed. Does anyone enjoy writing long work emails on their iPhone? The Q10′s physical keyboard may win adherents, even if at first glance there’s a stodgy, Gutenberg-printing-press era whiff to it.

But the odds still seem long against BlackBerry rising back to the top, or anywhere near it. Since the day the first iPhone launched, the BlackBerry has been in free fall. Today, it accounts for only 1 percent of the U.S. market for smartphones. Its bread-and-butter markets in the rest of the world are also shrinking. Reclaiming its former “Crackberry” cultural relevance will be all but impossible — and not just because people love their iPhones. We have very few examples of products that have managed to eradicate the stench of defeat and be reborn. And there are simply too many market players, unveiling too many new and improved models every few months, blocking BlackBerry’s comeback.

The brutal truth is that for most people today, the BlackBerry is associated with exactly the kind of middle-manager mediocrity conveyed by a VH1 power ballad retrospective. The BlackBerry is a work device — a relic of the era where your phone came from your employer, rather than your own personal predilections. And paradoxically, the feature that most distinguishes the BlackBerry from other smartphones, “Balance” — its ability to separate your work and personal life — just underlines that point.

The New York Times reports that the point of “Balance” is to facilitate corporate control:

Corporate and government information technology managers will be able to segregate business-related apps and data on BlackBerry 10 handsets from users’ personal material through a system known as BlackBerry Balance. It will enable an I.T. manager to, among other things, remotely wipe corporate data from fired employees’ phones while leaving the newly jobless workers’ personal photos, e-mails, music and apps untouched. The system can also block users from forwarding or copying information from the work side of the phone.

I don’t know what you’re looking for when you go shopping for a new smartphone, but the ease with which outside forces can delete my data or control what I do isn’t high on my list. And that’s significant, because today, people are already going to have their own smartphones when they go to work for a company. And they will have made their purchase decisions based on reasons that do not necessarily coincide with employer priorities. An employer may decide for security reasons that employees are required to use a BlackBerry for work communications, but everything we’re seeing in the marketplace right now suggests that the corporate world has learned that it simply has to accept that most people are going to have their own phone, already. There may be a niche market of corporate environments where security is a high enough priority to trump the “bring-your-own-device” reality, but that’s probably not going to be a big enough market to bring BlackBerry back to the top.

BlackBerry knows that it has a branding problem. At the unveiling of the Q10 and the Z10, there wasn’t a hint of the REO Speedwagon high jinks of just a few months ago. Instead, CEO Thorsten Heins announced that Alicia Keys would be BlackBerry’s “global creative director.” According to press reports, Keys had formerly given up her BlackBerry for something with a little more “bling,” but now she was back (presumably accompanied by a hefty endorsement contract along with her “job” title).

Keys might be a better choice than an ’80s soft rock band for establishing cultural relevance, but she also seems like a safe choice, exactly the kind that a risk-fearing corporate middle manager would make. It’s going to take bolder moves for BlackBerry to prevail.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>