Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Bye-bye BlackBerry

There was a time when all a thrusting young buck of a junior executive craved was the corner office. But that all changed when a Canadian company called Research In Motion came up with the whizzy idea of turning the radio pager, the executive accessory of old, into an electronic manacle for upwardly mobile corporate managers: the device we now know as BlackBerry.

Soon, watercooler gossip became dominated by talk of who had been anointed with one as ownership became as coveted as the executive parking space or the private toilet. Only those deemed essential for out-of-hours e-mail contact could have one. It's exclusivity even went so far in some companies (my previous employer included) that permission to have one had to be first sought from the CFO.

However, like Frodo Baggins' ring, owning a BlackBerry came with a downside, namely that little flashing red light. Once the owner figured out that switching off the ringtones that accompanied a new e-mail - especially the "squelchy" one or the 'clanging chime of doom' - would be conducive to a happier open-plan workplace, the blinking LED took on (and here comes another Tolkien reference) a lethal power, like Sauron's eye drawing the poor sap to his or her handset, desperate to find out what missive requires immediate attention.

We became addicted. The sobriquet 'CrackBerry' was coined. Suburban train stations, bus stops and underground platforms became populated by zombie-like BlackBerry owners hunched over their handsets, rabidly thumbing through their e-mails.

Within time, homelife would be impacted, as über-stressed middle managers reached for their BB the minute that red light flashed. Morning, noon and night. It even led to the social phenomena of 'phubbing', as dates and anniversary dinners became destroyed by furtive and not-so furtive glances at the pocket-sized distraction.

Despite all this executives and managers (and US presidents) have struggled to part company with the thing. BlackBerry maybe today to smartphones what the Sopwith Camel is to the Airbus A380, but we still cannot do without it. Nor can IT departments who swear by its one and only - and original - USP, the encryption of its e-mail service.

The tide, however, has surely turned. For a while, and despite changes of leadership, BlackBerry has remained rooted to the basement of the smartphone league, a financial basket case struggling to keep up with Apple, Samsung, HTC - even Nokia. For its last financial year, RIM reported a net loss of $5.9 billion, even though it claims to be returning to profitability.

For me, it's too little, too late. If the financial viability of a technology company is measured by its reputation and underpinned by the reliability of its products, I can only predict more doom and gloom on the horizon for the Canadian company.

After all those years of executive envy, relationship-straining obsession and blasé ignorance of owning what is still a premium product (or at least was until teenage girls and inner-city riot coordinators got hold of them), I've given up on BlackBerry. I'm going cold turkey.

I've simply had enough. I've swapping my BlackBerry Bold - the third my company has supplied me in as many years - for a Samsung Galaxy. That, by the way, is no endorsement pitch. I've just had it with the BlackBerry's chronic lack of robustness and even worse product design, and the manufacturer's ongoing inability to develop that most basic of smartphone requirements, a decent browser.

TechCrunch blogger John Biggs predicted this moment as long ago as 2011: "BlackBerries aren’t status symbols," he wrote in a post, RIM, You're Done Here. "They’re the real-world equivalent of the thick, heavy IT-department-assigned business laptop. They’re staid, boring, and unwanted but people are used to them and, for email, they are quite capable. But that’s about it." Aye.

The good news about switching to the Samsung is that at least it will be a familiar operating environment, having owned an iPhone these last five years (sorry, patent lawyer humour). I will have to learn my way around Android. Here is likely to be the one saving grace of BlackBerry,  the one thing it got right in the first place: simplicity.

It may have been totally superseded by smartphones that are more palm-sized laptops, but the BlackBerry's e-mail interface and phone capabilities are all many of us want in a business phone. I would gladly trade in all those apps I'll never use for the e-mail client, the calendar and the phone book. But, no. I guess that's not possible.

I will, I'm also sure, come to miss that blinking red light, when I wake, flashing throughout the day and, just as I'm about to go to sleep, give me one last flash as if to say "Go know you want to know who's e-mailing you at this time of night".  And, of course, you check...and discover it's just an American colleague writing "Thanks" in a reply-all.

Well, BlackBerry, I'm done here.

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