Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

The obsolescence loop

What happened to Blackberry is a textbook example of how all technology has a best-before date

A picture of the Blackberry device for younger readers

Wed, Jan 8, 2014, 10:37


Every so often, the blue bubble thing happens and I note that another Blackberry user has gone for the Apple instead. Every iPhone user knows the feeling, as a contact whose text messages normally arrived on your phone in a green bubble suddenly goes blue as he or she joins the iPhone club. There are probably also plenty of one-time Blackberry evangalists who’ve gone for various Android options too, but the blue bubble thing is a real sign of the times.

Reading Businessweek’s superb oral history on the rise and fall of the Blackberry is a lesson in tech hubris. It took a while for Research In Motion’s idea, a device to allow people send and receive emails while away from their office computer, to take off. When it did take off – at its peak, they were shifting 15 million phones every quarter – those at RIM thought the good times would never end.

The iPhone arrived in 2007 and naturally enough, RIM executives had a good chortle at Apple’s attempt to move onto their turf. After all, they’d already seen off competition from Microsoft and Palm so Steve Jobs was not going to bother them unduly. As RIM executive Chris Key notes in the oral history, “the attitude for most of the people in the senior leadership at BlackBerry was… ‘IPhone is a music player and a consumer toy’.”

But history records things differently. While there were some at RIM who knew the writing was on the wall as the Blackberry failed to compete with the new arrival from Apple, the time to turn the tide and change things up was over. The iPhone roared away and took a huge chunk of the consumer market with it. In time, the business market also followed suit and onetime Crackberry addicts began to get used to the iPhone keyboard.

As Businessweek notes, it didn’t take long for Blackberry to lose ground completely: by the end of 2013, the onetime $83.4 billion company was worth just around five per cent of that. Talk about a fall from favour. There are still people who use Blackberrys and are probably quite happy with the experience, but the numbers have never been so low.

Of course, the time may also come when iPhone users will decide to jump ship too. Something new and shinier will come along to grab our attention and we’ll move without much fuss. Apple may well have a suite of really geat bits and pieces, but that doesn’t mean lifelong loyalty any more. The consumer no longer simply sticks or makes do with something because there is always another option.

Be it a phone or a social media service, there’s no guarantee that users are going to stay with you for the long-term or even, as Facebook are finding out, that teen users will stick around until they come become adults. Something else comes along and, boom, there you go and you’re Snapchatting away to beat the band.

We’ve become promiscuous consumers which means that the obsolescence loop for tech products and formats becomes shorter and shorter. Even if many tech formats never quite die out, as we can see with vinyl and cassettes, the mainstream has begun to switch faster and faster to something new. For anyone in tech who believes their company or product is impervious to change, the Blackberry story is a salutary reminder of how things really are.