This Day In History: January 19

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On January 19, 1999, the first BlackBerry pager, BlackBerry 850, is released. BlackBerry devices go on to drive explosive growth for upstart Canadian producer Research in Motion (RIM), dominating the U.S. smartphone market for much of the 2000s. But they eventually lose their market share to Apple's iPhone.

RIM introduced the 850, its first BlackBerry device, as "a breakthrough wireless email solution for mobile professionals." The BlackBerry 850 wasn't a phone, but a two-way pager with email capability. The gadget's signature QWERTY keyboard inspired the name "BlackBerry," because the small, round keys reminded designers of the fruit. The BlackBerry 850 boasted a 32-bit Intel 386 processor, all powered by a single AA battery. It also ran on its own operating system, with secure, encrypted messaging. It quickly became popular on Wall Street, in law firms and among other white-collar office workers. "To have email right on your hip was quite new and very efficient," recalled Sean Strickland, city councillor of RIM's hometown of Waterloo.

RIM's revenue skyrocketed to $85 million after the release of BlackBerry 850 in 1999, an increase of 80 percent. Sales skyrocketed as executives became loyal BlackBerry users and recommended the device for their employees. In 2002, RIM released the first BlackBerry phone, the BlackBerry 5810, which had internet and email capability and an external headset for making calls.

The BlackBerry didn’t just appeal to businesspeople; it also counted celebrities and politicians as fans. Kim Kardashian promoted the brand throughout the 2000s, and it appeared in numerous hit movies and TV shows. Barack Obama famously wanted to keep his BlackBerry after he was elected president in 2008, and predicted that his staff would have to "pry it out of my hands." Heavy BlackBerry users jokingly nicknamed the device the "Crackberry" for its addictive qualities. Webster’s New World College Dictionary chose "Crackberry" as its 2006 word of the year, and a fan website of the same name racked up millions of views per month.

In early 2010, BlackBerry devices captured 43 percent of U.S. market share, according to Comscore, and RIM's worldwide sales peaked the following year. However, Apple's iPhone quickly gained ground. When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie responded, "it's ok—we'll be fine." Apple's original touchscreen keyboard was frustrating to use, and it didn't offer the security of encryption. As Apple devices improved, however, BlackBerry sales plummeted. By 2013, RIM accounted for only less than six percent of the U.S. smartphone market. In 2022, the company finally discontinued support for all its phones, signaling the end of the first era of smartphones.