A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 30, 2013

The Loneliness of 72 Million Blackberry Owners

An inadequate supply of apps? Inconvenient. People laughing at your electronic device? Humiliating.

Lots of people use several-year-old laptops. Some people like to drive old cars. Vintage clothes, haircuts, eyeglasses, houses: plenty of older accoutrements have cache.

But not smartphones.

It is not clear why of all the world's accessories, smartphones need to be the newest and coolest in order to elicit admiration. Plenty of older and less powerful models are perfectly adequate, but the phone has become some sort of talismanic arbiter of social acceptability. People with old models reflexively apologize as they pull them out. Even aging Boomers who spent most of their adult lives navigating an increasingly treacherous world without them seem to understand that certain types just wont do. And dont even bother asking the young and restless.

The impact of this digital defrocking is more than ephemeral. Blackberry has 72 million global customers. When introduced, its new models received favorable, sometimes laudable, reviews. But the company has now effectively put itself up for sale, not because of technological issues, but because no one wants to be seen holding that brand.

We live in a world where perceptions matter, sometimes as much or more than actual performance. And anyone who doubts the power of that imperative should talk to a Blackberry owner. Or shareholder. JL

Matthew Garrahan comments in the Financial Times:

I met a friend for a drink in Los Angeles recently and put my phone on the bar while I paid. The barman bent over to look at it, examining it curiously. “Huh,” he said after a while. “I didn’t know people still used those.”
“What is it?” A young woman leaned over to see. “This guy still has a BlackBerry,” he said, holding it up. She looked at it too, and then burst out laughing. In the age of the touchscreen phone, BlackBerry owners, as I have discovered, face public opprobrium similar to the hardy souls who drove Skoda cars in the 1980s, or who kept faith with Betamax video recorders long after they were supplanted by the VHS format. Our phone has in a relatively short time become a laughing stock, a byword for naffness – a relic for losers in an age of apps, quick mobile internet access and touchscreen keypads.
Despite BlackBerry revamping its products – and its latest handsets receiving generally positive reviews – it has been left behind by its competitors, chiefly Apple’s iPhone and the multitude of Android handsets. Now we hear it is exploring “strategic alternatives” – essentially inviting buyers to put it out of its misery. As an FT headline put it last week: “Sometimes the best that a company can hope for is death”.
BlackBerry’s problems are legion. It was slow to embrace touchscreens, partly because the 72m or so BlackBerry owners (myself included) like the physical keypad and writing long emails on a touchscreen is devilishly difficult. But its app store is understocked and not particularly user friendly. Another problem is that older models, such as mine, struggle to run most apps.
But possibly the biggest issue facing it is that consumers no longer view it positively. It has lost its cachet and no amount of product rejigging will be able to restore it. BlackBerry is no longer cool.
Loss of cool can be devastating for a brand, particularly in an era when opinions can be shared instantly online with a vast, global audience. Think of MySpace, once the hottest social networking site around, used by the coolest bands lauded by its young audience and namechecked in films.
Within months, the perception of the site shifted irrevocably among young consumers. A hipper, easier to use social networking site – Facebook – had emerged: MySpace was clunky and slow-moving in comparison and, to make matters worse, it had been acquired by News Corp, a media conglomerate that had never been associated with cutting-edge fashion or trends. MySpace was no longer cool, its audience abandoned it in droves and it never recovered.
Sometimes external factors stop a brand being cool. A decade ago, gigantic gas-guzzling Hummer jeeps were the height of cool, popular among US drivers of a certain disposition. But growing concern about the environmental impact of vehicles such as Hummers – and a sharp increase in the cost of gasoline – brought the brand’s growth to a halt. Sales slumped, consumers moved towards more fuel-efficient vehicles and, in 2010, owner General Motors said it would wind down production.
Of course, some consumers think it is cool to be conspicuously uncool. A paper published last year about social media abstention by Laura Portwood-Stacer, of New York University, noted: “Media refusal is a way of making one’s everyday lifestyle into a site of resistance against the powerful, normative force of media consumer culture.”
But other consumers simply do not care if things are cool. About 2.5m households in the US still access the internet with an AOL dial-up connection, rather than broadband. Some of those people cannot afford to upgrade, others may be in rural areas where broadband is unavailable. Many are just happy to maintain the status quo, however, despite the glacial speed.
I include myself in this category with my BlackBerry. It has a touchscreen as well as a keypad, but the former often freezes. The mute button turns itself on mid-call and I regularly have to take the battery out and put it back in again to get emails to load. I know I should upgrade to a better-equipped phone but, like those people still getting their dial-up internet, I cannot quite summon the will to do it.
I’m sure I will replace my Blackberry one day, as it would be a pleasure to have a phone that works properly and allows me to waste more time browsing the internet and playing Angry Birds. No longer being an object of public derision would, of course, be an added bonus.


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