The Original BlackBerry Was Ahead of Its Time

What does that teach us about future tech?

Credit: Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

“The BlackBerry was the most amazing, magical invention in the history of things you can buy,” Tom Hanks proclaimed in The 2000s, a recent CNN series that chronicled the biggest moments in the previous decade. The BlackBerry started the smartphone revolution and its release was an inflection point for how technology would become embedded into our lives.

It’s been almost two decades since the first BlackBerry was released and, as we try to unpack the complex effects of technology, it’s more important than ever to try and understand where it came from and what it is doing to us.

In fact, one of the earliest BlackBerry devices, the BlackBerry 7200 series, had design elements and features that presented clear signs of what was to come. Looking back, it’s now clear that many of the ways technology is a part of our lives today, for better or for worse, all started with that tiny blue keyboard.

The original status symbol

For smartphones, the BlackBerry served as the original status symbol, representing wealth, career progression, and self-importance.

The first model to really take off, the BlackBerry 7200 series, was iconic. Anyone with one of those blue-colored, hard plastic-wrapped, tiny QWERTY key filled devices made sure to rave about its use and would often even wear it on the hip with a belt holster like a badge of prominence.

BlackBerry’s parent company, RIM, had released earlier BlackBerry devices, but none was more recognizable than the 7200 series, making it the original BlackBerry.

Even a full decade after the introduction of the 7200 series, well after dozens of newer BlackBerry models and the introduction of the iPhone, it’s the device that comes to mind when a character on a TV show like The Simpsons uses a BlackBerry.

Jay-Z even rapped about the device in his chart-topping song, “Encore,” flaunting his popularity as an international artist: “Back to take over the globe, now break bread/I’m in Boeing jets, Global Express/Out the country, but the blueberry still connect/On the low, but the yacht got a triple deck.”

He may have gotten the berry wrong, but we knew what he meant.

Like Jay-Z, all sorts of celebrities — athletes, actors, musicians, and even world leaders — carried the BlackBerry as a badge of honor. Even Barack Obama fought to keep his BlackBerry when he took office and needed to have a custom-built, secure version made just for his use.

The New York Times covers Obama’s challenge to keep his BlackBerry.

Although the BlackBerry may have been the first gadget to function as a status symbol, it wasn’t the only one. It led the way for digital devices today to demonstrate status and be a form of expression.

A recent survey of U.S. singles found that 70% of eligible people prefer to date an iPhone owner over an Android user. For women surveyed, almost 50% of them said that people who owned older phones were a turnoff and over one-third of men surveyed said they think a cracked screen “shows a lack of personal care and financial security.”

The BlackBerry 7200 series started all of that. If you were caught with the little blue device, it showed what you valued and how you were ahead of the curve. Today, like the clothes we wear or the cars we drive, the brand of smartphone, its model, and its age all act as a reflection of who we are and how we want to express ourselves.

Using the BlackBerry’s scroll dial

The original mindless scroll

The BlackBerry 7200 series also started a habit that’s now the scourge of modern productivity. Have you ever caught yourself suddenly on Facebook or Twitter, not remembering pulling out your phone, opening an app, starting to scroll through the feed? But there you are, already two or three dozens of posts in.

We may have traded plastic tactile dials for cold glass screens but the effects are the same.

If you went back in time, the owners of the 7200 series would easily relate to the feeling.

The BlackBerry 7200 series was designed with a dial on its top right edge used for scrolling up and down through message lists and content.

Although seemingly simple, it was brilliant in its design and ergonomics.

At the time, most phones had click buttons for navigation that required a lot of effort and time for scrolling through large amounts of text. The dial, of course, had its downsides, like its inability to easily scroll horizontally, but it did one thing and one thing really well: it got out of the way and let you scroll through messages so intuitively that it felt like second nature.

We may have traded plastic tactile dials for cold glass screens but the effects are the same. Scrolling through endless messages and emails is no different than the endless posts we go through on social media today.

Courtesy of Facebook.

Frictionless scrolling, the predictable layout of information, and the endless feed of content are all means to get people to mindlessly continue to ingest more and more information — something that BlackBerry discovered years before with the 7200.

The original social network

BlackBerry is not exactly the blue logo that comes to mind when thinking of social networking, but it had a service that is so similar to the tools we use today that it’s easy to miss: BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), originally called QuickMessenger, was way ahead of its time.

Functionally, BBM allowed for instant messaging and group chats, but BBM was more than that. It was the original social network in that it did what most social networks do today: help you keep in near real-time contact with many people, at once, from a device you can carry anywhere.

Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp for $19 billion and the company’s investment into Facebook Messenger show just how important messaging is to social networking, especially for mobile. It wasn’t clear at the time, but BBM signaled a trend, and today’s WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger experiences are not very different from the days of BBM.

The BlackBerry 7200 series didn’t originally come with BBM, the official release came a few years later. The 7200 did come bundled with AOL Messenger, MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and the early chat product ICQ, which eventually led to BBM’s creation. The BlackBerry 7200 allowed us to cut the tether to our PCs and laptops and use these messaging services to be truly mobile and always connected for the first time on a large scale.

The BlackBerry 7200 also had something that is core to the messaging experience today: Notifications.

The red notification indicator on the BlackBerry lives on today as notifications found on our smartphones. Photo courtesy of Marc Corredera

Blackberry even went to the lengths of building a physical notification LED light indicator that would flash red when a new message was available. This idea of a subtle indicator, something other than a ring or a chime, lives on today in the red dots of the badge notifications on app icons.

It’s clear that social networks and notifications as we know them today have unmistakable parallels to what the BlackBerry 7200 pioneered decades ago.

Connecting the dots backward

Coco Chanel allegedly once said, “Only those with no memory insist on their originality,” and it’s just as true in technology as it is in fashion.

If the BlackBerry pioneered so many of the core concepts that power most of our digital lives today, what does it tell us about the future?

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
— Steve Jobs

What will we be connecting backward years from today? As we look to the next 20 years, what BlackBerrys exist today that we’ll look back on and say it was all right in front of us the whole time? Can the lessons of the Blackberry inform our design decisions and make our technology more meaningful? BlackBerry gave us glimpses into the ways technology would be embedded into our lives, but I’m left wondering if that realization will help us for tomorrow.

Will we be able to spot the patterns we see today? Or will we look back once again realizing the clues were already right there with us, in the little rectangle we kept in our pockets?

Design @ Quora

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