Who Still Wants a BlackBerry?

I tried the new “Classic” model to find out.

BlackBerry Classic
The BlackBerry Classic.

Courtesy of BlackBerry

When Apple puts out a new iPhone, the world stops to let Tim Cook lead it through a slideshow. Each time Samsung launches a new Galaxy flagship, we get weeks of anticipatory leaks and rumors. But when BlackBerry announces a new phone? The universe yawns.

Which is fair. Back in 2009, BlackBerry boasted, by at least one measure, a more than 40 percent share of the smartphone market. By the end of 2014 that slice of the pie had dwindled to 1.8 percent. Nobody pays attention anymore because nobody’s using BlackBerrys. Ever since the iPhone launched in 2007, customers have steadily migrated to phones with big touch screens.

So I found it poignant when BlackBerry rolled out a brand-new model called the “Classic” (now available for $449 unlocked, or for less with a contract at Verizon or AT&T). BlackBerry had flirted in recent years with iPhone-aping designs like the Z30, but the Classic is a throwback to the BlackBerry phones of yore—with a physical QWERTY keyboard and a stout, old-school look. It evokes those salad days when legions of loyal customers referred to their devices as “CrackBerrys.” With the company’s best years seemingly behind it, it’s no surprise BlackBerry longs to hearken back to happier times.  

But I was curious about the other side of the equation. Who is this phone for? Are there really diehards out there who pine for a retro BlackBerry? Is there a cadre of fierce BlackBerry revanchists hiding among us?

When I asked Donny Halliwell, a senior product marketing manager at BlackBerry, about the target customer for this phone, he described this person as a “tech conservative” and a “mature power professional who’s come into their career.” Reading between his lines, I got the sense there was one word Halliwell had studiously avoided: “old.” We might deduce that the sort of customer he’s talking about, much like the company itself, would love to relive those glory days of the mid-2000s—the prime of life, when one still had hair and one didn’t need to learn how to use a touch screen.

Halliwell noted that folks who work “in government, the financial sector, and other regulated industries” constitute a major swath of the BlackBerry customer base. So when we talk about these “mature power professionals,” we’re talking about Wall Street executives, law firm partners, and senior government officials. If there’s anything “cool” about BlackBerry these days, it’s that it counts among its user base people like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, and, coolest of all, Frank Underwood.

Given this impressive client roster—hey look, Eric Schmidt, too—I couldn’t help but wonder: Would using a BlackBerry Classic make me feel (even more) mature and powerful? Would I begin to gray at the temples the moment the device was in my palm? Would wing tips sprout on my feet, and cuff links pop to life on my wrists?

Sadly, no. None of these things happened. Nor did I suddenly “come into my career,” much as I prayed for whatever that would mean. Instead, over the weeks I played with the Classic, what mostly happened is I came to understand why it is that only 1.8 percent of smartphone users choose BlackBerry.

I’m going to pause here to ask you some questions: Do you like smooth, responsive touch screens? How about intuitive menu systems? Do you enjoy taking crisp photos and looking at big, sharp images?

If the answer to these questions is yes, I can assure you that you don’t want a BlackBerry Classic.

This simply isn’t the phone to buy if you want to flick around through groovy apps, play frivolous games, or snap cool photos. The Classic’s screen is dwarfed by the new generation of smartphones—meaning, for instance, that you can only see a few tweets at once instead of a long Twitter timeline, and games get squeezed onto a teensy patch of real estate. The camera is substandard—the difference in image quality between this and an iPhone is immediately apparent to anyone with eyes. Apps don’t look as pretty or operate as smoothly. And that’s if you can find the apps at all.

Instagram, for example, is not available for BlackBerry. True, there are “client” apps that manage to replicate it. Halliwell noted that “if you Google around” you can usually find a “workaround” for most missing apps. But I don’t want to Google around. I don’t want workarounds. I want Instagram. And I want to use it with a decent camera.

Of course, you probably suspected all of this already. People don’t use old-school BlackBerrys for fun. They use them for work. For making phone calls, or sending text messages and emails.

When I canvassed friends to see if any were BlackBerry users, the only two who used BlackBerrys by choice were both real-estate agents. One had turned the other onto the phones’ utility. These guys often need to type long, detailed, precise emails while standing outside on a street corner in Manhattan. For this type of task, they favor the physical BlackBerry keyboard.

They’re far from alone in adoring that keyboard. No less a luminary than Kim Kardashian West has gushed: “[I]f you have an email and you need to type fast, you need to have that keyboard.” Amazingly, this is one of the few things she has ever said that she wasn’t paid to say.

Fellow celeb Ryan Seacrest loves the keyboard so much he helped back the Typo2—a product that grafts an imitation of the BlackBerry keyboard onto an iPhone. The idea is to marry Apple’s magical touch screen with BlackBerry’s clicking QWERTY. It’s a decent effort, though when I tried the Typo2 on an iPhone 5s I found its keys were too small and too tightly spaced. The keyboard prosthetic also makes your iPhone bigger in your pocket, throws off its balance in your hand, and covers up the iPhone home key—which means you can’t use your Touch ID fingerprint to unlock the phone or to approve app purchases. (It’s still worth trying the Typo2 if you can’t give up your iPhone but you crave that BlackBerry feel. It’s a clever enough copy that BlackBerry has filed a patent infringement lawsuit.)

I feel Seacrest. By which I mean I understand the fetish out there for physical keyboards. When Michael Jackson died in 2009, I wrote a quick reaction for Slate entirely on a borrowed BlackBerry—rolling two beers deep in the bleachers at an Orioles game—and found I could type on that keyboard just as fast as I could conjure up thoughts.

But that was 2009. Touch screens have come a long way. The iPhone 6 Plus I’ve been using lately has a large, nicely spaced touch-screen keyboard even when you hold the phone vertically. (It’s in fact too large to use with one hand, but that’s a story for a different gadget review.) My thumbs scud across the 6 Plus screen with ease, and the occasional fat finger mistype is a nonissue given Apple’s rapidly improving autocorrect software. What’s more: I like not needing to depress anything. It’s much easier on my thumb joints to lightly tap. It’s no coincidence there’s a repetitive strain injury known as “BlackBerry thumb.” Oh, and those loud clicking sounds! I much prefer the near-silence of a touch screen. I don’t need long, noisy key travel reminiscent of an IBM Selectric.

BlackBerry does possess one clear advantage over its competitors: It’s the choice of IT departments everywhere—especially in government and in those regulated industries Halliwell mentioned. Why? Its platform is secure. To get into the reasons behind this would require a treatise on the nature of the QNX Neutrino microkernel, and neither you nor I want that. But it’s fair to say that BlackBerry has been working hand in hand with IT departments for a long time, creating a protected environment that allows organizations to control features and usage for their armada of corporate mobile phones. In fact, BlackBerry has lately been trying to leverage its security know-how by melding iOS and Android handset options with BlackBerry’s putatively safer software network.

The vast majority of people I know who still use BlackBerrys indeed do so because it’s mandated by the IT people at their workplaces. This is the case with Barack Obama, too. The president has said he “is not allowed, for security reasons, to have an iPhone”—though he was recently spotted eyeing the Bahraini ambassador’s iPhone 6, looking suspiciously covetous.

Sorry, Mr. President. Off-limits for now. I wonder if Obama wishes he could be like most of my friends who have BlackBerrys for work: They keep another phone as a sidepiece—treating it sort of like a lover while they treat the BlackBerry more like a spouse. A safe, nagging, frumpy, boring spouse.