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

Steve Henn

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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
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