FORGET the Union — what’s the state of the BlackBerry?
Research in Motion, maker of BlackBerry smartphones and tablets, sent its co-chief executives packing last week and replaced them with Thorsten Heins, who had been RIM’s chief operating officer. How would he characterize his employer?
“We make the best communications devices in the world,” said Mr. Heins, who met with editors and reporters from The New York Times on Friday.
Not everyone feels the same way. Over the last year, RIM’s share price has plunged 75 percent. The company once commanded more than half of the American smartphone market. Today it has 10 percent.
RIM has two, maybe three ways forward.
The first — the one that Mr. Heins is clearly aiming for — is a triumphant comeback after a near-death experience. Think Apple and its iMac. RIM is on the verge of upgrading its PlayBook operating system — now with, among other things, e-mail, a feature that the original PlayBook bafflingly lacked — and will release the BlackBerry 10 OS this year.
Behind Door No. 2 is a gradual decline and diminution as rivals like Apple, Google and Microsoft devour most of the market; to some degree, they already have. BlackBerry would keep the scraps — a small but dedicated following of corporate and government customers who want its proprietary messaging and security features.
Then there is the third option: oblivion. The road of progress is littered with the corpses of fallen titans. Objects that once seemed as indispensable as the companies that made them have been mercilessly superseded — as seen below. And RIM ought to know: with mobile devices like the BlackBerry 957, it helped to extinguish the pager era.
SONY WALKMAN (1979-2010) Before the Walkman, “personal audio” meant holding a transistor radio to your ear. Sony’s invention created an entire category of devices and helped make the company the technology leader of the 1980s. New models (Thinner! Auto-reverse!) were eagerly anticipated, the LP was relegated to the attic and tender moments spent listening to mix tapes from that certain someone proliferated across teenage bedrooms. Sony seemed incapable of putting a foot wrong. It successfully moved the brand into compact discs with the Discman, then bought record labels and movie studios to bring about that illusory marriage of technology and content. When the digital revolution hit, Sony was too beholden to its proprietary formats, as well as to the inertia inside its media companies. Enter Apple and the iPod.
PAGERS (BORN 1951) At first, pagers were attached to people who worked in fields where lives were on the line. That usually meant doctors, though the group expanded in the late 1980s to include drug dealers. Early beepers displayed only numbers, giving rise to a numerical lexicon that included codes like 911 (call me back immediately) and 07734, which resembles “hello” when read upside down. Pagers briefly gained fame in early 1990s hip-hop, showing up in songs like “Skypager,” by a Tribe Called Quest. The pager’s fall was attributable to the disruptive and destructive powers of another technology: the mobile phone. Why beep when you can talk? And a pager message is so tiny that it makes a tweet look like “The Iliad.” The beeper does live on, in limited circles: its network remains more reliable than cell networks, making it useful to E.M.S. and other rescue workers.
PALM PILOT (1997-2007) Filofax brought personal organizers to their analog apogee in the early ’90s, but Palm brought them into the digital age. Palm Pilots were dazzling when they first appeared: all of your contacts, calendars and notes in one slim, pocket-size device. A touch screen, which required a stylus, made navigation easy. And you could add software, bought through an online store. Want a Zagat guide to go along with your personal data? No problem. In later years, Palm even added telephone features, creating a compelling, all-in-one gadget. Despite boardroom dramas that affected the company’s name and its ownership, Palm’s reputation as a source of innovative hardware and software endured until Jan. 9, 2007. Why that date? That’s when Apple introduced the iPhone.
POLAROID INSTANT CAMERAS (1948-2008) Edwin Land’s invention of instant-developing film in 1948 put a darkroom inside a handheld camera. That achievement gave his Polaroid Corporation a distinct advantage over traditional film cameras. By 1980, Polaroid was selling 7.8 million cameras a year in the United States — more than half of all the 15 million cameras, instant and traditional, sold that year. In 1985, it won a major patent-infringement suit, forcing Kodak to abandon its own instant-camera efforts. The victory was short-lived. The late ’80s brought the rise of the digital camera. By 2000, digital cameras began appearing on cellphones, placing cameras in millions of pockets. Polaroid declared bankruptcy for the first time in 2001 and stopped making instant film in 2008. Kodak declared bankruptcy on Jan. 19.
ATARI 2600 (1977-c.1984) It wasn’t the first game console, but the Atari 2600 brought video games into the home and popular culture. Over its life span, more than 30 million were sold. Pong, Combat, Pitfall and Frogger soaked up children’s afternoons. Then came the PC, which could play games and do much more. Atari rushed out games, assuming that its customers would play whatever it released. They didn’t. Millions of unsold games and consoles were buried in a New Mexico landfill in 1983. Warner Communications, which bought Atari in 1976 for $28 million, sold it in 1984 for no cash.