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14 Aug 2013 09:31
The BlackBerry had its years of phone-based cachet. But they are over, says Stuart Jeffries. (AP)
This time last year I ran into the sea in my shorts. I saved my daughter from drowning but killed the BlackBerry in my pocket.
It was the end of an era.
Phoneless in Devon, I consoled myself by realising that the must-have smartphone of the previous decade had become passé. I read an article entitled "10 celebrities who still use BlackBerrys" – that "still" encoding the sneer of someone who understands which phone the right-thinking hipster should fetishise and which should be consigned to the bargain bin of history.
"BlackBerrys haven't been hot since the first time [Lindsay] Lohan went to jail," it said. Which in celebrity years is, like, before dinosaurs. Who else remained faithful to this loser device? Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Justin Timberlake, Cristiano Ronaldo? Sheez. No wonder the BlackBerry stopped being a CrackBerry and became a LackBerry, a SlackBerry, a WhackBerry.
No wonder either that this week BlackBerry is begging someone to buy up the company, revolutionise its business model and thereby elude its manifest destiny of joining Rumbelows, Comet, Woolworths, HMV, (to name only recent British retailing loser brands) as a fitting subject only for lame consumerist nostalgia.
Like Nokia, the Finnish company that practically invented texting (legend has it this was because Finnish geeks, God love them, were too shy to ask for dates face to face and so invented SMS to overcome their SPDs, ie socio-psychic deficiencies), BlackBerry had its years of phone-based cachet. But they are over. My BlackBerry, once the spinning jenny to my Nokia's hand loom, that made all previous phones seem stupid, had become obsolete.
Nowadays even Barack Obama, the last BlackBerry user whom intelligent hipsters might admire, reportedly deploys iPads for security briefings. Today when Sasha and Malia send iPhone pictures of themselves to their oldster pop, they no doubt wonder if his phone can display their images properly (probably not: BlackBerry camera functionality has always sucked).
Ah, I thought nostalgically as I sat on the beach in damp shorts, remember when the BlackBerry was the last word? In the early 2000s, the New York Times outed Al Gore, Michael Dell and Bill Gates as BlackBerry users suggesting: "BlackBerry is the choice of a high-tech and financial elite."
Remember too when Jack Bauer tapped at his BlackBerry and detonated a terrorist's vest bomb on 24? False memory syndrome: it wasn't a BlackBerry but a Palm Treo with which Jack took out the terroristic trash. But it looked a lot like a BlackBerry (right down to the bodger-confounding keypad), hence my confusion. But Jack was just the kind of guy who should have been a BlackBerry user: he was butch, connected (to Chloe at CTU) and working (albeit in a rogue capacity) for the government.
Bauer and BlackBerry once made history; now they were history. It was time, I realised, as the sea claimed my communication device, to move on. Or was it? Wasn't the very fact that the London riots of the previous summer had been catalysed by BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) indicative of the fact that the BlackBerry was enjoying a funky, antinomian afterlife as the authentic rebel's go-to smartphone? Maybe.
The BlackBerry had become the rioters' communication tool only because it had lost its lustre among the business demographic for which it was devised and become as cheap as the pay-as-you-go burners the drug slingers used on the Wire.
How ironic: the built-in encryption that made BlackBerrys the mobiles of choice for governments and corporations was harnessed to transmit riot timetables untraceable by the Met.
The day BlackBerry lost any remaining appeal for me was on October 10 2011, when worldwide users couldn't send or receive emails and even badass rioters couldn't use BBM. I was, as always when the integrity of my manifold virtual interfaces is compromised, absurdly angry. How could I be a functioning media drone without 24/7 access to emails? I would have binned the bloody thing there and then but I still had 10 months to go on my contract.
So when the sea claimed my BlackBerry, it gave me licence to roam. But which new phone would I buy? My brother-in-law swears by his Samsung Android but then his leading lifestyle choice is to be a Birmingham City season ticket holder, if you catch my drift.
Not an iPhone, I told myself. Anything but an iPhone.
For years, I'd been irked by those smug iPhone users on the other side of the bus. Where did they get off? Not the Nag's Head, that's for sure. Look at them, over-involved with their phones, sweeping often impeccably manicured, overwhelmingly female fingers across their gestural interface – like pint-sized digital simulacra of Tom Cruise's screen-surfing hands in Minority Report. How I loathed them. How, at the same time, I envied them. iPhone users, that is, not their fingers.
This loathing might be connected with latent misogyny. One might suppose iPhones are for women, BlackBerrys for men. You stroke an iPhone as though you're giving it an aromatherapy massage. You biff BlackBerrys with butch fingers as if you were Hemingway banging out a story on his typewriter.
That latent misogyny found expression a few years ago, in an ad for Verizon's Motorola Droid, which described the iPhone as "a tiara-wearing, digitally clueless beauty pageant queen", a "precious porcelain figurine of a phone" and "a princess". The Droid, meanwhile, was a "racehorse duct-taped to a Scud missile", fast enough to "rip through the Web like a circular saw through a ripe banana".
For all the macho insanity of this ad (what sort of mess would a circular saw spray on my shirt if it sawed through a ripe banana, I worried? Isn't duct-taping missiles to horses very wrong?), it has a point: men flee what women endorse.
Or do they? Today I'm halfway through my two-year contract with an iPhone 4. How come? Two things. One starry night in Suffolk my sister held up her iPhone to the heavens. On her screen I saw the Star Walk app and suddenly the heavens were mapped in sublime colours. I was inducted thereby not just into the glories of the empyrean, but into the phantasmagoric world of apps. My BlackBerry was exposed as a CrapBerry. Sure BlackBerry has an app store, but its apps weren't as bewitching, useful or as moneyspinning as those iPhone users downloaded. I may be symbolically castrated and daily suffering buyer's remorse, but I made my choice.
We can't help but invest brands with such gendered, political, or even theological resonances. In 1994, Umberto Eco suggested that Apple was Jesuitical, while Microsoft was Calvinist. Apple was "cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation." Microsoft by contrast "allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation." Thus interpreted, who would choose Microsoft over Apple?
Since 1994, Apple's dominance over our mindsets and handsets has grown unremittingly, even though its shiny products are made by Chinese workers who slog their guts out for a relative pittance so the rest of us can bask in its – what was that again, professor? – "cheerful, friendly, conciliatory" aura.
No matter. Apple is like the British empire 100 years ago, on which the sun never sets; while BlackBerry is like London now, on which the sun scarcely rises. Samsung fights a rearguard court action against Apple's claim that it stole its best functions. The latest BlackBerrys look, to my eyes, like wannabe iPhones. Apple has taken over the world, or at least the world of phones.
BlackBerry, not Apple, was once the celebrity fruit of choice. If we learn nothing else from BlackBerry's collapse, it is that even the most zeitgeiesty brands are destined to go bad. But when will Apple, similarly, rot? Let's hope soon. – © Guardian News and Media 2013
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