All Tech Considered
4:07 am
Fri September 27, 2013

BlackBerry: If You Don't Survive, May You Rest In Peace

Originally published on Fri September 27, 2013 2:45 pm

This may be premature, but it is best to think of this post as an obituary for the BlackBerry, a phone struck down seemingly in its prime. Gone so soon.

BB, we'll miss you.

Over the course of its existence, BlackBerry sold smartphones to more than 200 million people. It became ubiquitous in places like Indonesia, but it began with an invasion of Wall Street and Washington.

"In 2005 and 2006 it just hit Wall Street like a tsunami," explains Heidi Moore from her desk in a newsroom in New York. "Everyone had one. Out of nowhere, it just appeared. It was like being part of a cult."

Moore has covered Wall Street for more than a decade, first at The Wall Street Journal, then public radio show Marketplace, and now The Guardian.

"You'd go into meetings, just casual meetings, and the table would be covered with BlackBerrys, because some people had two — because they were just that important," she says.

Moore says that owning a BlackBerry — having it in your hand at a bar — signaled you were part of the tribe. Paying attention to it at a cocktail party or a meeting let everyone know you had more important things to do.

The BlackBerry seemed tailor-made for the ethos of Wall Street. It made timid men mean.

"Here's the thing," says Moore. "Wall Street loves threats. It is really what kind of greases the wheels of commerce. So if you can level a threat without having to look at someone's face fall, that is probably the ideal situation."

It is much easier to pretend you're tough if you don't have to look anyone in the eye.

"That's right," says Moore. "No one can see the fear in your face as you are making the threat."

In those early days, it was easy to look at that guy checking his BlackBerry ostentatiously and write him off: He's a banker, a lawyer, a journalist, a jerk. But then, the devices started invading our homes, dinner table and bedrooms.

It turned out the addiction, the rudeness, the obsession with a smartphone as a cultural signifier of status was lurking in us all.

Today it's not just CEOs and Washington lawyers checking smartphones obsessively. And it's not just investment bankers making threats. It's junior high school kids and soccer moms. The BlackBerry offered us an early glimpse of the ugliness in us all.

I met Lisa Cooper-Carlson and David Henig waiting in line for coffee in Palo Alto, Calif.

"The smartphone now, it's next to the bed, and we're talking about how sad it is that the morning ritual is now to roll over and immediately see what came in overnight," says Cooper-Carlson, turning to Henig. "Do you do that? "

Henig and Cooper-Carlson are both iPhone users now, but they trace the roots of this kind of familial dysfunction to the BlackBerry.

"I was never a BlackBerry user," says Henig. "My wife, who's a physician, did use a BlackBerry all the time. And she was always under the table checking the email kind of thing. And you always knew because ..."

Henig pauses. Glances at my microphone — looks momentarily aghast, then continues, "I really shouldn't say much more."

So I ask, delicately, "Did it cause marital strife?"

"No!" He insists. "It never caused marital strife." Then Henig bursts out laughing. "That's my story. I'm sticking with it."

There are actually people who make a living studying this stuff.

Michael Lee Wesch, a digital anthropologist at Kansas State University, says that BlackBerry's contribution to the world isn't all bad. Like any transformational figure, says Wesch, the greatest impacts of the BlackBerry may have been misunderstood in its own time.

When Wesch talks to his students about the mobile and digital revolution we are living through, he likes to say that there is something in the air.

"There are just over 3 billion people connecting and collaborating, and what's in the air are the digital artifacts of all that," Wesch says.

Anyone with a connected device can tap into the world's store of information. Anyone who can type or take a picture can now add to a global debate — and BlackBerry helped get it all started. For millions of people in the developing world, a BlackBerry was the way they first experienced the Internet.

BlackBerry may still live on as a smaller private company, but its era is ending.

The BlackBerry: If you don't survive, may you rest in peace. You forever blurred the lines between work and home. You helped usher us into an age where billions of human beings carry computers in their pockets, and children, parents and spouses have to compete with tiny screens for the affection of their loved ones.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. BlackBerry will release its earnings later today - and this report might be the final time BlackBerry ever files. A Canadian investment group has made a bid to buy the company and take it private. BlackBerry lost close to a billion dollars last quarter. Its once iconic phones are not selling and the company is laying off 40 percent of its remaining staff.

The grim news has raised the specter that someday BlackBerry could stop manufacturing smartphones. But today NPR's Steve Henn brings us this look back at the first wildly successful smartphone and its cultural legacy.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: This may be premature, but it might be best to think of this as an obituary for the BlackBerry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HENN: A phone struck down seemingly in its prime. Gone so soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HENN: Over the course of its existence, BlackBerry sold Smartphones to more than 200 million people. It became ubiquitous in places like Indonesia, but it began with an invasion of Wall Street and Washington.

HEIDI MOORE: In 2005 -2006, it just hit Wall Street like a tsunami. Everyone had one. Out of nowhere, it just appeared and everyone had one. It was like being part of a cult.

HENN: Heidi Moore has covered Wall Street for more than a decade - first at the Wall Street Journal - then public radio show Marketplace - and now the Guardian.

MOORE: You'd go into meetings, just casual meetings and the table would have more BlackBerries than people, it seems, because some people had two BlackBerries, you know, because they were just that important.

HENN: Moore says that owning a BlackBerry - having it in your hand at a bar - signaled you were part of the tribe. Paying attention to it at a cocktail party or a meeting let everyone know you had more important things to do. And in those early days it was easy to look at that guy checking his BlackBerry ostentatiously and write him off. He's a banker, a lawyer, a journalist - a jerk.

But then these devices started invading our homes, our dinner tables, our bedrooms.

LISA COOPER CARLSON: It's next to the bed. And we talking about how sad it is that now the morning ritual is to roll over and immediately see what came in overnight. Do you do that?

HENN: Lisa Cooper Carlson and David Henig were having coffee in Palo Alto. They are actually both iPhone users now, but they trace the roots of this kind of familial dysfunction to the BlackBerry.

DAVID HENIG: I was never a BlackBerry user. My wife, who's a physician, did use a BlackBerry all the time. And she was always the under the table checking the email thing. And you always knew because - I really shouldn't say much more.

(LAUGHTER)

HENN: Did it cause marital strife?

HENIG: No. It never caused marital strife.

(LAUGHTER)

HENIG: That's my story. I'm sticking with it.

HENN: There are actually people who study this stuff of a living. Michael Lee Wesch is a digital anthropologist. He insists that the BlackBerry's contribution to the world really wasn't all bad. Like any transformational figure, Wesch says, the greatest impacts of the BlackBerry may have been misunderstood in its own time. Today when Wesch talks to his students about the mobile and digital revolution we are living through, he likes to say that there is something in the air.

MICHAEL LEE WESCH: And the way I think about it is that there are just over three billion people connecting and collaborating and what's in the air are the digital artifacts of all of that.

HENN: Anyone with a connected device can tap into the world's store of information. Anyone who can type or take a picture - can now add to add to a global debate. And BlackBerry helped get it all started.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HENN: For millions of people in the developing world a BlackBerry was the way they first experienced the Internet. But now the company is hobbled. It may still survive but its era is over.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HENN: The BlackBerry. If you don't make it, may you rest in peace. You forever blurred the lines between work and home. You helped usher us into an age where billions of human beings carry computers in their pockets and children, parents, spouses and friends are forced to compete against tiny screens for the attention of their loved ones. Steve Henn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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