BlackBerry lovers find ways to squeeze all they can from their aging devices
An evolving set of workarounds keeps fans in keyboards “I’d rather use my old BlackBerry than a brand-new phone”
Darren Kao, an IT consultant who runs a mobile software startup in Ottawa, uses his Android phone for two things: WeChat, to stay in touch with his Chinese clients, and the Starbucks payment app, for his morning caffeine fix. For everything else, he’s got his trusty BlackBerry.
Kao is part of a shrinking tribe of diehard BlackBerry fans dedicated to navigating modern life with what most
people consider an obsolete appliance. Like many devotees, he says iOS and Android devices just can’t match BlackBerry’s call quality, central hub for notifications, or physical keyboard. “I’d rather use my old BlackBerry than a brand-new phone,” he says.
To outsiders, it’s an increasingly perverse choice. After all, BlackBerry has committed to updating its BB10 operating system only through the end of the year. It’s shifting its devices to Android and has no stated plans for another BB10 phone. And the number of BlackBerry users around the world has fallen by two-thirds, to about 23 million, in just two years, according to a company filing. Even President Obama, who famously fought to keep his BlackBerry despite the U.S. Secret Service’s security concerns, told Jimmy Fallon in June that he’s finally ditched the brand (reportedly for Samsung).
The continued loyalty of those last 23 million users is striking. Kim Kardashian has said she buys old BlackBerrys on EBay to ensure a steady supply. Others painstakingly follow online tutorials on workarounds to make popular apps such as Snapchat and Instagram work on BB10. Friends and family find themselves adding BlackBerry Messenger to their app roster to keep in touch with the few remaining Berry users in their lives.
Kao, the IT consultant and software developer, refuses to message with
his wife or friends through anything other than BBM. “Even my girls were brought up playing with BlackBerrys as toys,” he says. He now uses a BlackBerry Classic, an updated version of the legendary BlackBerry Bold.
When BlackBerry Chief Executive Officer John Chen chose last year to start selling phones running Android instead of BB10, it opened a rift in the community, says Chris Parsons, editor-inchief of fan website CrackBerry.com. “They essentially made people make a choice at that point: Are you a BlackBerry user or are you essentially an Android user?” says Parsons, known on the site as Bla1ze.
In 2014 a CrackBerry mainstay known only as Cobalt232 found a way to rework Android’s source code, stripping out elements that stop Android apps from working on BB10. He’s allowed the die-hards to download modified Android versions of apps that don’t otherwise work on BB10.
Still, getting non-BlackBerry applications onto a BB10 phone requires patience and some technical skill. And the results are often glitchy, says Howard Mesharer, a waiter in Columbus, Ohio. He’d been using Cobalt’s hack so he could Snapchat with his friends on his square-screened BlackBerry Passport, the latest in a long line that he’s owned. (He can readily recite the complex series of model numbers: Curve 8520, Curve 8900, Bold 9900, Bold 9700, Curve 8320, Z10, Classic, Q10, Passport.) But he grew tired of spending 45 minutes at a clip tinkering with Snapchat workarounds, and in May he caved and bought an LG Android phone. “No developer wants to develop for BlackBerry,” he says. “It’s over.”
Some on Wall Street would like BlackBerry to move on, too. Macquarie Group analyst Gus Papageorgiou, who’s covered the Canadian company on and off since 2002, said in May that ditching hardware to focus on software and services would help its bottom line and cheer investors. Chen, the CEO, has said he’ll do that if he can’t make the smartphone unit profitable by September.
He’s got a ways to go. On June 23, BlackBerry reported better-thanexpected quarterly earnings, but netted a loss of $670 million, on revenue of $424 million, due largely to writedowns and impairments. The company reported just $2.2 billion in revenue last fiscal year, its lowest since 2006. “This is a company in the midst of a product transition right now,” says Bloomberg Intelligence analyst John Butler. “The device business is clearly not working.”
Kao, like other longtime fans, is struggling with the transition. He got his first BlackBerry in 2003, when he landed his first job at IBM, and recalls being the envy of all his friends. “It used to be a badge of honor,” he says. “Now it’s almost a shame.”
The bottom line BlackBerry’s global user count fell by two-thirds in two years, to 23 million, but some fans still work hard to adapt the devices.