Why I’m going back to an old BlackBerry

It’s complicated, but worth explaining.

The BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930

Years ago I was working for a small non-profit. My job title was “Technology Specialist,” which was intentionally ambiguous. I was one of three staff members with this title and, between the three of us, we were responsible for absolutely everything technology-related for the organization, from maintaining email servers and websites, to filming and editing videos, to setting up new computers. I loved that job. It allowed me to learn how to do all kinds of things and get my feet wet in a lot of different technology-related areas. It also taught me how to use the Internet as a self-educational resource.

When my boss came to me one day in late 2010, handed me the brand new BlackBerry Bold 9650 she had just purchased, and asked me to help her set it up, it was the first time I had ever handled and tinkered with a BlackBerry.

It was 3 years after the iPhone first came out. I was still using a feature phone, but I also used a 3rd Generation iPod Touch. I remember thinking even then how “old” that 9650 seemed compared to the iPhone. It was a nice enough phone, but physical keyboards were so…old school. The all-touch era had arrived and people needed to get with the times. Or so I thought.

My First BlackBerry

A couple years later I bought my very first BlackBerry product: a PlayBook. I had since upgraded my phone to a Samsung Galaxy Nexus. But Research in Motion (RIM), maker of BlackBerry devices , had just slashed prices on their beleaguered entry into the tablet market to try to spur sales. In my case it worked. I picked up a 16 GB model for $200.

The PlayBook was my “gateway drug” to the BlackBerry universe. I thought it was a fantastic device at the time; its multitasking capabilities were light years ahead.

BlackBerry PlayBook Multitasking

Another feature that the PlayBook had was called BlackBerry Bridge, which allowed you to pair a BlackBerry phone with it via Bluetooth and access your phone’s emails, contacts, SMS and BBM messages, and files from the tablet, as well as share your phone’s Internet connection. I really wanted to try Bridge out, so I bought my first BlackBerry phone: a Curve 8530. And I was hooked.

BlackBerry Bridge Demo

While its potential was never fully realized, I believe the functionality and utility of RIM’s tablet-phone duo to have been years ahead of its time and still one of the best implementations of such a combination I’ve ever seen. For example, Bridge also allowed you to control your PlayBook from your phone. The phone’s trackpad controlled a mouse pointer on the tablet that allowed you to navigate the OS and apps. The phone’s keyboard allowed you to easily input text. So you could have your PlayBook connected to a display via its dedicated micro HDMI port and drive a professional presentation or show a video, all controlled from your phone on the other side of the room without the need for a WiFi connection.

Other Phones I’ve Owned

In the ensuing years, I’ve owned and used these other BlackBerry phones: Bold 9930, Torch 9810, Q10, Q5, Z10, Z30, Classic, Passport OG, and Passport SE. I’ve also owned a Priv, but I don’t consider that to be a “pure” BlackBerry phone, for reasons I’ll explain later.

For the sake of demonstrating that I am not a brand loyalist or “fan boy”, I feel it necessary to list the other smartphones I have owned and used over the years: iPhone 5, 5c, 5s, and SE, LG Optimus V, Galaxy Nexus (as I mentioned earlier), Moto G1, Moto G2, Moto X2, Moto G4, Nokia Lumia 521, Lumia 822, and Lumia 950. As of the time I write this, I’m using an iPhone 5s.

I have an insatiable curiosity about all manner of gadgetry. I enjoy learning the ins-and-outs of each device and I am able to appreciate their unique abilities and strengths while acknowledging their faults, which they all have.

What it comes down to for each of us when selecting any technology we use is which strengths we want and which weaknesses we are willing to live with.

Back to an Old BlackBerry

Despite its long list of shortcomings — especially when compared to modern devices — of all the phones I have used, the BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930 is still my all-time favorite, followed closely by the BlackBerry Q10. And now that BlackBerry has committed to supporting their legacy (BBOS and BB10) phones through the end of 2019, I have chosen to reacquaint myself with my old friends and use one as my “daily driver” again. I haven’t decided which one yet.

I am completely aware that I will be forsaking a bevy of features — many of them quite handy— by using an old BlackBerry. This is absolutely intentional. It’s not just the nostalgia factor and the retro vibe that appeal to me. It’s not just the brilliant physical keyboard that caters so much better to my personal typing style than any touch-screen keyboard ever has. It’s the fact that legacy BlackBerrys were engineered and designed from the very first sketch, the very first line of code, for a very different purpose than modern smartphones.

The BlackBerry Q10

What Sets Old BlackBerrys Apart

The mission of RIM was to create mobile telecommunication technologies that empowered people to quickly and securely communicate and to get things done. Their phones may have been addictive to a certain degree, but it was unintentional and due in large part to the fact that they provided access to instant text-based communication in the palm of your hand — a hitherto unprecedented experience. Indeed, diehard BlackBerry fans lovingly nicknamed their cherished devices “CrackBerrys” because they enjoyed using them so much.

Ironically, today’s smartphones are significantly more addictive than legacy BlackBerrys ever were because they are explicitly designed to capture and hold your attention for as long as possible. This is so that data can be collected about you and monetized for the purposes of targeted advertising, and so that said targeted ads can then be shoved prominently in your face. They also focus on media consumption, another very lucrative revenue source for app developers and content producers. Of course you can also communicate and be productive on a modern smartphone, just like you could with an old BlackBerry, but that is not their primary purpose. That’s not how they make money.

Those who design modern mobile software experiences — Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, et al. — have thoroughly studied how the human brain works. They understand human behavior and neuroscience very well and have carefully designed their software to manipulate people into compulsively and habitually using their products and services. They know exactly how to trigger a dopamine rush and keep you coming back for more. I consider such blatant and aggressive manipulation and exploitation to be wrong and I want to protect myself from it as best I can.

It’s a Trap!

I have gone through phases with iOS and Android phones when I have installed all the apps and games I could possibly use. It was horrible. I was constantly “checking” my phone. Every notification was an excuse to pick up my phone and get sucked in. Social media and games burned a huge amount of my time, followed closely by streaming video apps. My phone was an attention-grabbing, time-wasting, soul-killing black hole.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy iPhones and Androids, it’s that I enjoy them too much.

In Spring 2017, I started exploring minimalism, the concept of getting rid of the clutter and excess in your life so that you can focus on what is most important and live more intentionally. Like physical clutter in our homes, there is also such a thing as digital clutter. While I was cleaning out my closets and garage, I also took steps to remove the digital clutter in my life. I went so far as to disable all notifications and delete all social media, game, and video streaming apps from my iPhone. Save for a handful of apps, I mostly use my phone for email, texts, phone calls, and calendar management. Considering how I use a phone now, the transition back to an old BlackBerry will be pretty smooth. The “app gap” will be a desired feature.

What makes legacy BlackBerry phones continue to stand out for me is their obvious focus on enhancing rather than influencing our lives. This BlackBerry ad conveys the idea better than I can (yes, I know it’s an ad, but I think it does a good job of capturing the essence of what Research in Motion and legacy BlackBerrys were all about):

Why Legacy BlackBerrys Failed

Legacy BlackBerry phones were intended to facilitate our lives, not hijack them, and I believe therein lies a major reason for RIM-BlackBerry’s decline in popularity and eventual exit from the smartphone business altogether. Oh, they indeed made some royal blunders running their business that very well could be responsible for sinking the BlackBerry handset Titanic in and of themselves. But I do believe it’s plausible that developers of the most popular apps intentionally avoided BlackBerry phones or provided less-than-adequate app experiences to drive users to iOS or Android because BlackBerry phones were too privacy-focused. Developers couldn’t enjoy nearly the same degree of data-mining and, therefore, ad revenue on BBOS and BB10 that they enjoyed on Android and iOS. Personal data is money, and legacy BlackBerry phones were extremely protective of that resource by design.

If RIM had one flaw, it was that they were too focused on safeguarding privacy in a world where people are willing to trade their privacy for cheap or free stuff, convenience, and entertainment.

I do believe that the pendulum is starting to swing the other way, though. As massive data breaches and misuse of personal information become more prevalent, people are coming to realize just how important their privacy is. There may yet be a place in the mainstream for a truly private and secure mobile communication and computing platform some day in the future. I look forward to that day.

BlackBerrys Running Android

When it became obvious that BB10 failed, BlackBerry (RIM changed their name to BlackBerry with the launch of BB10) ventured into the world of Android with the release of the Priv. When that flopped, they released two more phones — the DTEK50 and DTEK60 — in an experimental collaboration with TCL, a Chinese electronics company that manufactures and sells phones under numerous brands including Alcatel. But the DTEKs did not sell well, either. BlackBerry eventually shut down its in-house phone business and became purely a software and services company.

But new Android phones bearing the BlackBerry logo are still being produced and sold by a few companies — mainly TCL under the BlackBerry Mobile brand — thanks to licensing agreements with BlackBerry Limited (the Canadian company formerly known as Research in Motion). BlackBerry Mobile’s first devices, the KEYone and Motion, are well-designed, excellent pieces of hardware. They certainly look like BlackBerrys on the surface. But the fact that they run Android means they lack a huge, essential chunk of BlackBerry DNA. No matter how much software they layer on top of it — even good software like the BlackBerry Launcher, Hub, locker, privacy shade, etc. — it’s still Android at its core and, therefore, not a completely BlackBerry experience.

For many BlackBerry fans, the switch to Android is a good thing. They finally have unimpeded access to all the apps and games they want, and their device of choice still bears the iconic BlackBerry logo. But for a dwindling number of fans like myself, a BlackBerry running Android is like a Porsche 911 with a Toyota Corolla engine. It may look nice and get the job done, but it’s far from the quintessential experience it claims to be.

But I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the fact that it’s a wonder BlackBerry is still around at all. CEO John Chen has orchestrated a brilliant turnaround for a company that was once on the brink of total ruin. And kudos to TCL and BlackBerry Mobile. They really have done a remarkable job at reviving and rebuilding the smartphone brand image and generating new excitement and interest around it. It seems they are enjoying some degree of success, so hats off to them and their fans. And here’s hoping that maybe somewhere down the line TCL or another competent organization feels adventurous enough to license more tech from BlackBerry and create a proprietary privacy-and-security-focused mobile OS. Even an Android fork with more privacy/security features and all the Google tracking removed would be great!

Conclusion

This is not meant to be a criticism of iOS and Android phones or those who use them. I have used both platforms and will continue to do so, as I will always be a curious technology geek and will still need access to certain apps and functionality old BlackBerrys lack. Rather, this is an attempt to articulate my reasons for wielding an old BlackBerry as my go-to phone — for rejecting the modern smartphone paradigm in favor of another, albeit older one that is better suited to my personal quest for privacy protection and intentional living.

You may be thinking to yourself, “I could never do that. I could never go back to an old BlackBerry.” I think you could if you really wanted to. You’d be sacrificing a lot, but maybe you’d also be gaining some important things back. I look forward to delving into what those things are in future writings.