New Movie Chronicles Rise and Fall of Government’s First Secure Smartphone Devices

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BlackBerry devices were at one time almost completely ubiquitous in government service.

Over the weekend, a new movie called BlackBerry was released to a limited number of theaters, having first debuted at the Berlin film festival earlier this year. The picture does a nice job of chronicling the rise and fall of Research in Motion—or RIM—and their BlackBerry devices which were at one time almost completely ubiquitous in government service. The film is partially a documentary, but one interspersed with a lot of comedy. It stars Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson and a lot of other mostly Canadian actors, which is appropriate given that RIM was headquartered in the small town of Waterloo, in the Ontario Province of Canada. It’s also loosely based on the Losing The Signal book from 2016, when the fall of BlackBerry was all but assured.

While I don’t think that the BlackBerry movie will get anywhere close to the popularity of other upcoming films like Fast X, it is an enjoyable look at the pre-smartphone era devices that conquered government service long before Androids, iPhones and BYOD programs became the norm. For those who have long been serving in government service, it might also conjure up an appreciation for how completely dominant BlackBerry was in the federal government, and how much the technology influenced how government operates, even today.

I was fortunate enough to be working in the Government Computer News product testing lab when the first few BlackBerry devices started to make their way into government service. I was just a junior lab reviewer at the time, so I didn’t get any of the primo assignments to review those early devices, although I did get to play with them quite a bit in the lab, and could immediately see their potential to transform how government operated.

You have to realize that back in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, email was really a desktop-based product. And even then, those desktops with email clients were mostly tethered to physical Microsoft Exchange servers. That meant that even if you were lucky enough to have a corporate or government email at your work, you probably didn’t have access to it from your home, even if you had a desktop computer in your home office. You could of course have a personal email address through a service like AOL, Earthlink or quite a few others, but connecting to your government work account remotely was not easy to accomplish. That made working from home, and any real possibility of telecommuting, a difficult task.

The first BlackBerry devices only did email, but they did it well. The little greenish screens were easily readable, and the devices flashed a small red light when an email came in to alert users. They also had physical keyboards, something that in no small way contributed to their enduring popularity. That made it easy for users to respond to emails in a way that was not unlike how they wrote emails from their desktop keyboards, just using a much smaller platform.

There was also the BlackBerry Messenger application, mostly just called BBM, which allowed users to communicate with one another using PIN codes. It was essentially like how we text each other today, although today’s texting apps are much more elegant and seamless. But back in the day, BBM was one of the only ways to securely communicate with another person or a group of people. And, while almost every other company and phone carrier charged a few cents for every text message sent or received, BBM was completely free and included with the monthly service plan.

However, the killer app for government was the fact that BlackBerry was built with security as a top priority, something that is brought up in the film. BBM and email messages on BlackBerry devices featured end-to-end encryption so that they could not be intercepted and read even as they traversed internet backbones and wireless signals en route to a BlackBerry device. That focus on security, more than probably anything else, let BlackBerry devices continue on in government service even after iPhones and Androids started to spread like wildfire for the general public. 

For example, a story in Nextgov from 2014 talks about a mobile messaging system being deployed by the Pentagon to support its fleet of mobile devices. The article notes that when the system came online, it started supporting 80,000 BlackBerry devices and only 1,800 Android and iPhones. 

By that time, I had been promoted to the Lab Director of GCN, so I could pick and choose what I reviewed. As such, I got to review the BlackBerry Playbook, which was RIM’s first big foray into making a tablet. It earned an “A” in that review, although I noted that while it was a perfect tablet for government service, its limited features and lack of consumer applications would probably keep it out of the mainstream.

That lack of flexibility probably doomed BlackBerry more than anything else. Their devices used the BlackBerry OS, and their app store was extremely limited. Yes, all of the applications in the BlackBerry store were secure, but people wanted things like Angry Birds, better camera applications and more user-friendly texting and messaging tools that didn’t require the use of PINs to find their friends. Eventually, iOS and Android devices simply out-innovated RIM, which is ironic given how innovative BlackBerry was when it was first introduced.

BlackBerry didn’t completely disappear overnight. The company tried to regain its innovative momentum. As recently as 2017, Nextgov had me review a BlackBerry smartphone, the KEYone. The KEYone featured an old fashioned physical keyboard to link it to the BlackBerry devices of yesteryear, but little else. It no longer ran the BlackBerry OS, instead opting to run on the Android platform. So, it was basically an Android phone with a physical keyboard. It worked fine, but other than a few people who really missed typing on those classic physical keys, it was mostly seen as a kind of gimmicky device by the mainstream public. In any case, it was far too little, and far too late to save the BlackBerry platform.

On January 4, 2022, all support for BlackBerry classic phones and devices was dropped. The platform was well and truly dead.

After watching the BlackBerry movie, I searched my lab and found an old 16G BlackBerry Curve tablet hiding in a forgotten corner. The device looked to be in good shape, having been protected from a decade of dust by a very nice felt cover. I charged it up for several hours, but sadly, the device refused to boot for me. I suppose the era of BlackBerry is really gone, but at least we still have our memories of a family of devices that changed government service, and to a lesser extent, the world.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys