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BlackBerry: A Cultural Touchstone

The once-dominant BlackBerry’s run came to an official end this week. Boardroom looks back at its impact.

Tuesday marks the end of an era in smartphones, albeit one that may have unofficially wrapped up years ago.

As of Jan. 4, BlackBerry devices will no longer run on the company’s operating systems, though users will still be able to run their devices if they’re on Android’s software.

It’s a far cry from where BlackBerry was, even a decade ago. In fact, the story of cellular technology and how it changed the world in every respect can’t be told without it. Before the 2007 rollout of the first iPhone, the “CrackBerry” emerged from a field of flip phones like the Motorola Razr, as well as entires from Nokia, Sony Ericsson, HP, Siemens and others. Its full keyboard, web browsing ability, and encrypted texts on its BBM platform made it the go-to device in the sports, business, music, and fashion industries in the early-to-mid aughts.

“The music industry in the early 2000s was a sea of BlackBerry devices,” Thirty Five Ventures co-founder and CEO Rich Kleiman said. “I think that really added to the allure and the pop culture status that it maintained for so long.”

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BlackBerry’s Canadian parent company Research In Motion made sure the company was prominently featured in pop culture, sponsoring world tours from global superstars like U2 and the Black Eyed Peas. In Drake’s 2010 MTV documentary Better Than Good Enough, he said he writes all his songs on a BlackBerry, never paper.

“If we don’t have a BlackBerry we gotta borrow one or find one somewhere,” he said. “The BlackBerry keys, my thumbs were made for touching them.”

In 2009’s Say What’s Real, he shouted the company out as part of his So Far Gone mixtape.

Lost some of my hottest verses down in Cabo

So if you find a BlackBerry with the side scroll

Sell that mothafucka to any rapper that I know

Among its many references in songs, Tinie Tempah and Swedish House Mafia discuss BlackBerry multiple times within the first 40 seconds of their 2010 smash hit Miami 2 Ibiza, and aughts stars Sean Kingston and Soulja Boy have an entire song dedicated to it, called BBM.

BlackBerry got Alicia Keys not only to be its brand ambassador but created the role of Global Creative Director for her in 2013, though it made a rather large misstep when it reportedly rejected Justin Bieber as an ambassador in 2007.

“Give me $200,000 and 20 devices, and I’m your brand ambassador,” Bieber told Research In Motion, according to longtime senior business development manager Vincent Washington in Bloomberg’s 2013 oral history of BlackBerry’s rise and fall. “They said, ‘This kid is a fad. He’s not going to last.’ I said at the meeting: ‘This kid might outlive RIM.’ Everyone laughed.”

It also became a major status symbol on Wall Street and in Washington. Marketing experts told The New York Times in 2009 that then-President-elect Barack Obama’s plugs for BlackBerry in the media would’ve been worth $25-50 million had he charged for them, even discussing it on the Senate floor in 2007 with his future Vice President and current President Joe Biden.

Obama still used the BlackBerry as he was preparing to leave office in 2016, as he detailed to Jimmy Fallon.

Google co-founder and former CEO Eric Schmidt reportedly used BlackBerry devices even when his own company started making its Android operating system, favoring its keyboard. Encrypted texting was so secure that Italian criminal syndicate the ‘Ndrangheta used BBM when communicating with Mexican drug cartels.

The cultural impact the phone had appears endless. 50 Shades of Grey author E.L. James said she wrote the majority of her smash hit novel on a BlackBerry, while Kim Kardashian allegedly kept a stash of them in 2014 in case any of her precious devices broke, and Paris Hilton snapped photos and shared directly from their QWERTY keyboards.

“The BlackBerry was the device for the fashion set with front row staples,” fashion expert Edward Barsamian, former style editor at Vogue and former writer at The New York Times’ style magazine, told Boardroom. “But the person in fashion I most associate with BlackBerry is Naomi Campbell. She was accused by a former assistant of throwing her device at her, resulting in Campbell having to serve community service.”

The 2005 incident became such an iconic moment in fashion lore, Barsamian said, that label Chip and Pepper created a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase: “Naomi hit me, and I loved it” that Campbell herself was seen wearing.

Of course the sports world grew addicted to BlackBerry as well. Drake reportedly used to send messages of encouragement like “tonight is your night” to LeBron James on BBM on a regular basis, including during the 2011 playoffs. Until just last year, guys like Derrick Rose and Jamal Crawford were still holding on and using their BlackBerry devices. They have that in common with Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who still uses his BlackBerry regularly, including constructing the 2019 championship squad with it and even shooting a 2014 commercial for the brand.

The advent of the iPhone in 2007 and its smartphone, touch screen technology, would mark BlackBerry’s eventual downturn, but the company continued to gain momentum into the 2010s. In 2010 it was still a strong competitor, with 41 million users to 60 million iPhone users. By 2012, the company boasted a peak of 80 million users, but the iPhone had 206 million and was growing into the ubiquitous dominant force it is 10 years later.

“The Blackberry never did a fraction of what an iPhone can do,” Kleiman said, “but when I first got a Blackberry, which at the time was blue, I felt like I made it.”

While there will still be holdouts like NBA insider Marc Stein who will use Android BlackBerry devices because of the keyboard, the days of the old school BlackBerry and its legendary cultural relevance are over. But at its peak, there’s no question that it’s been one of the most important pieces of technology in the 21st century and helped change and rule the universe.

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About The Author
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.