RIM's new BlackBerry 10 handsets are just around the corner — a vital launch for the Canadian smartphone maker, which needs to lure businesses and consumers back to the brand.
The new devices will need a combination of intuitive user interface and compelling hardware, which makes now a good time to look back at RIM's heritage and its more notable handsets, for good or for bad. That's because the history of RIM can be measured out in handsets: from the first pagers through to its latest smartphones.
The RIM 850 Wireless Handheld (pictured) was announced on 12 July, 1999. Note how it was not yet called a BlackBerry; it was, however, the one that garnered it some attention.
The device itself (850 or 950, depending on network and locality, a recurrent theme for RIM) had a six- or eight-line display and was capable of sending messages, emails and had calendars, address books, task lists, a calculator and an alarm function. It was one of the first wireless devices capable of connecting people to their corporate email and contacts.
It had 4MB of memory, was powered by one AA battery and weighed 133g, which is exactly the same as an iPhone 3G. It also had a QWERTY keyboard, of course.
In the three months following its announcement RIM's stock went up 50 percent from just over $22 to around $33.50, as the wireless company focused its sights on business customers.
To put that in perspective, on 12 July, 2012, its share price was around $7; today its around double that. Apple’s stock price was around $55 in July 1999, today it stands at just over the $500 mark.
Following a successor to the 850 that had a larger display came the first BlackBerry phone that was actually a phone — well, almost.
Announced on 4 March, 2002, the 5810 was the first of a generation of devices marketed as phones with email capability, rather than as pagers. Despite its exterior — it shared almost the exact same chassis as the earlier 957 — it had all new internals. It was also available in the UK on the BT Cellnet network, now known as O2, as the 5820.
The 5810 worked on a 2G network, used a Java-based platform and allowed for voice calls, except that it required a headset as it didn't have a built-in microphone or speaker. It also offered SMS, organiser and primitive browser functionality, in addition to email.
While RIM was not yet ready to square up to the consumer market (which was still dominated by what is now termed 'dumbphones', but was at the time just 'phones', such as the Nokia 3210), RIM was readying itself for a run at Palm and its devices pitched for business.
However, the clunky phone functionality and design of the device itself couldn't match up to Palm's sleek, anodised aluminium finish found on models like the Palm V.
In mid-2003, BlackBerry launched the 7210 (the 7230 in Europe); its first handset with a colour display and a (now meagre) resolution of 240 x 160 pixels. It had 16MB of storage and had 2MB of RAM.
With a Java platform under the bonnet and a browser on board, users could now open documents, PDFs, Excel and PowerPoint files, cementing its appeal to the business crowd, who sometimes referred to it as a 'BlueBerry' rather than BlackBerry due to its colour. Naturally, that QWERTY keyboard was still in place.
Battery was pretty decent too, with a charge required only every two or three days with normal use.
With the advent of colour displays, RIM was beginning to keep half an eye on the consumer world but it wouldn't be until 2006 that it really started to expand its focus to non-business buyers. Meanwhile Nokia continued to dominate in RIM's non-core business with the release of the Nokia 3100, 3200 and 2100, and Samsung's SGH-E700 also did well.
The handsets contributed to a revival of faith in RIM, and over the space of three months its stock price nearly doubled from around $15 to $28.
The 7100t (7100X on O2 in the UK) was announced for T-Mobile USA in September 2004 and was the first of RIM's handsets to slim down and use the SureType keyboard that assigns two letters to each key, thereby saving space. It also used a predictive text system that learnt from the user from the first time they began to type, giving it an edge over competitors of the time.
While it may have been the first BlackBerry device to look more like a phone than a PDA or pager, it also provided the same corporate integration of its predecessors, with access to features like push email, Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes for BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) customers. Non-BES customers could still access email through a web client timed to retrieve messages every three to 15 minutes.
It was also a quad-band GSM phone, making it truly global, providing it wasn't operator restricted.
It was around this time that RIM began to hit its stride in balancing handset features with security and reliability of its services, leading it to make big gains against competitors using the Windows Mobile platform, which, while enterprise-focused, was not without its foibles.
As importantly, it was one of the first handsets that RIM made that could realistically appeal to consumer buyers, although it failed to make much headway, as it omitted other user-friendly features like a media player or camera. Meanwhile Nokia continued to turn out new models and the Motorola Razr V3 took the world by storm.
Nonetheless, with RIM's confidence and leadership of the enterprise market starting to show through, its share price climbed steadily from October 2003 until the 7100's announcement in late September, doubling from $37.50 to $77. As a side note, it did break the $100 mark briefly during that time, but refused to close a day out at that level. Following the announcement, the price continued to rise, ending just under $83 on 31 December, 2004.
In September 2006, RIM introduced the BlackBerry Pearl 8100, its first real effort to attract consumer attention to its wares after dominating the business market.
Alongside its SureType keyboard, 64MB of memory (with support for microSD expansion), 2.25-inch colour screen and integrations of RIM's now notable enterprise features it was also the first BlackBerry handset to offer a camera (1.3-megapixel!) and a media player application.
It also replaced RIM's well-worn thumbpad with a trackball for more precise operation for the first time; a feature that would become a staple of other RIM devices.
A later model (the 8120) was the first Pearl to offer the option of Wi-Fi. Another model, the 8220, was called the Pearl Flip (perhaps a response to the success of the Razr V3 the previous year) and was the first of RIM's clamshell chassis handsets.
The day before the 8100 was announced, RIM's stock price stood at $81, and it actually had a small decrease on the 7 September, but by the end of the month, on 26 September, RIM's shares closed above $100 for the first time: $102.65, to be exact.
With staple consumer features like a camera and media playback functionality, RIM started to make headway in the consumer market thanks to the Pearl, which remains one of the company's bestselling handsets of all time.
By the end of December the share price had reached around $128 as RIM continued to show a dominance and understanding of the business handset and services market, as well as increased success with consumer buyers. However, Apple's iPhone was yet to launch.
The BlackBerry 8800, announced in February 2007, is a notable handset in RIM's history as it was the first to include GPS, making accurate real-time mapping a possibility for the first time, and a handy bonus for travellers in unfamiliar cities.
Along with GPS, it had 64MB of memory, 16MB of RAM, a 2.5-inch colour display, full QWERTY keyboard and a trackball for navigation.
Coming hot on the heels of the announcement of the 8800, RIM lifted the cover on the BlackBerry 8300, the first of its Curve models, in May 2007 (it came to the UK as the 8320) and opted for the now-staple BlackBerry QWERTY rather than the SureType.
By this time, Wi-Fi was making its way onto more BlackBerry handsets and RIM was starting to capitalise on its gains in the consumer market.
In addition to leading a new family line in RIM's history as the first Curve, the 8300 also upped the ante on the camera front too, introducing a 2-megapixel affair, putting it on a par with the LG Shine and Windows Phone-based HTC Touch, and slightly better specced than the Palm Centro.
From just before the 8800 was announced in February, until 20 August 2007, RIM's share price rose from $128 to $235 as it continued to outperform rivals, particularly in the business sector. On 21 August, 2007 RIM issued a 3:1 stock split. The resulting value at the end of trading after the split was just under $82, but the Apple effect was yet to bite, with the first iPhone only having been announced at the end of June 2007.
By May 2008, RIM was ready to introduce a new family to the world: the Bold, starting with the BlackBerry Bold 9000.
Although perhaps not as successful as later models of the series, the original Bold 9000 was the first to support the higher HSDPA data speeds offered by network operators.
It also had beefier specs than other devices RIM was offering, with 1GB of internal storage (plus microSD expansion slot), 128MB RAM, and a 2.6-inch 65K (480 x 320 pixels) colour display. It also included Wi-Fi and a 2-megapixel camera.
It also had the trademark BlackBerry keyboard, beloved by fans.
However, while it had the specs, investor sentiment was unsettled — RIM's share price suffered a small decline from $139 in May to around $122 at the end of August 2008, as the impact of Apple's disturbance of the smartphone market began to take effect and the desire for new touchscreen form factors took hold.
By the end of December, RIM's inability to react quickly to the threat had cost it dearly, with the share price languishing around the $40 mark.
In order to try and respond to the seeming lust for full touchscreen handsets, RIM announced the ill-fated Storm, its first not to include a keyboard of any kind. It had made its way into stores in the US, UK, Canada and Australia between mid-November and the end of 2008.
Instead it featured a 'clickable' screen technology called SurePress, that was intended to give users the reassuring feeling akin to pressing a physical button. In reality, the movement allowed the screen to gather dust and be the source of other complaints with the device. Other problems such as software glitches also plagued the phone, giving fuel to critics.
According to Jim Balsillie, co-chief executive at the time, only 500,00 Storm handsets shipped in its first month. Despite a brief rally in sales in early 2009, the Storm failed to perform.
The next most notable release from RIM, which is telling in itself, came in the first half of 2011 in the form of its 7-inch PlayBook tablet.
However, like the Storm, the PlayBook was a knee-jerk reaction to a form factor it didn't understand, and to the subsequent runaway success of the Apple iPad.
Unfortunately for RIM it didn't offer the same level of ease of use or performance as Apple's tablet. Contributing to the PlayBook's poor performance in the market were some strange decisions made by the company, such as not offering its email services to PlayBook owners unless they also owned a BlackBerry smartphone.
Nevertheless, several versions (including LTE-equipped variants) have been announced since its first release on 19 April, 2011.
Despite its first tablet offering reaching the market, major shifts in the consumer market and exec-level turmoil combined to help shed value from RIM’s share price: it fell from $67 at the start of 2010 to $25 by July 2011.
Since then, the company has felt like it was treading water, eking the last life out of its existing software platforms and hardware before the introduction of its BlackBerry 10 handsets and software.
Undoubtedly, BlackBerry 10 is a critical juncture in RIM's history with the iPhone and Android devices becoming more accepted in enterprise environments, proving a threat to its core business. Today, RIM's share price stands around $15; I'll be interested to see what it is in July.