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The rise and fall of the BlackBerry

It’s called “BlackBerry thumb.” It’s an inflammation of the tendons that can lead to arthritis in later life. Simply put, our opposable thumbs were never meant to be in constant motion, flying over either side of the often less-than-ergonomic keypads of the typical smartphone. If your thumb hurts when you move it in a certain way, if you can’t bend it as tightly against your palm as you once could, if trying to do so causes you pain, you have BlackBerry thumb – so named because many sufferers were once ardent BlackBerry users. The tiny buttons of the BlackBerry keyboard prompted many to contort their thumbs in tapping out messages as quickly as possible. They suffered accordingly.

When the BlackBerry was the standard by which mobile full-keyboard texting and emailing were judged, when every connected and wired executive and technological professional worth his salt was carrying a BlackBerry in his pocket or on his hip, the typical user held his phone in both hands, poised his thumbs over the physical keyboard, and used the little finger of one of those hands to support the device. Chances are, you still do this. Chances are also good that if you were once a BlackBerry user, you’ve moved on to an iPhone, a Windows phone, or an Android device by now.

For many, the BlackBerry was a “gateway drug” to the world, the lifestyle, of the ever-present smartphone. Have you bothered to look around while out in public recently? Have you seen the zombies walking past you, heads bowed, attentions fixed on their do-everything phones? What about dining out in restaurants? You’ve probably seen an entire table of people staring at their phones, not talking to the people with whom they’re eating dinner. It’s very likely they’re updating Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Foursquare and Instagram (among many others) in order to tell people they’re not with that they’re eating with the people they’re ignoring.

The modern smartphone owes its existence to the BlackBerry. BlackBerries opened up the world of constant-on connection to your email and social networks. While the BlackBerry certainly didn’t bring text messaging to the public, its full physical keyboard liberated texters from the traditional keypad (which required users to tap the same key multiple times to produce different letters – a slow and painstaking process for all but the most adept).

But the physical keyboard is much less popular than it once was. Adding it limits the form factor of a device whose touch screen can otherwise be much more versatile. That versatility, in displaying applications and allowing the user to operate and interact with the phone, is what has driven the modern smartphone revolution. Physical keyboards simply take up too much real estate, limiting the size of the viewable screen. Hiding them by making them slide or otherwise fold away results in devices that seem clunky and old-fashioned compared to their sleek, modern, all-touch counterparts.

And that’s why BlackBerry is dying.

“After teaching the world to type on tiny buttons,” writes Ian Austen, “BlackBerry could soon be leaving the business of making phones – leaving fewer options for a vocal minority still committed to phones with its once popular physical keyboard.”

“Once popular” says it all. A device once called the “Crackberry” because it was deemed so addictive is now the red-headed stepchild of the smartphone market. It was the BlackBerry that gave rise to the experience of “phantom vibrations,” in which users waiting for the telltale vibration of an incoming call or message sometimes thought they felt the signal when no message had arrived. But the iPhone and other devices eventually ate the BlackBerry. The new phones offered new options, new apps and slicker connectivity. BlackBerry just couldn’t seem to keep pace.

BlackBerry’s sales are down (in 2012, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion experienced a whopping 40 percent drop from the previous years’ sales). Tech columnists now write gleeful columns about the problems facing the ailing company, once the giant of the mobile connectivity game. To add insult to injury, Britain’s The Times newspaper just announced that it was yanking its BlackBerry app because, well, nobody cares.

“BlackBerry recently announced a fiscal second-quarter loss of nearly $1 billion,” writes Charles Cooper. “The company’s revenue fell 45 percent to $1.57 billion during the period.” Unable to resist the shot, Cooper pointed out that the New York Times ditched its own BlackBerry app a year ago last summer. The bad news, however, runs much deeper than that.

According to David Friend of the Canadian Press, in addition to its financial losses, BlackBerry faces daunting costs in trying to “rework” its operations – costs that could be more than four times what the company estimated it would spend. “Those expenses will cover costs associated with the previously announced layoffs of 4,500 employees,” writes Friend, “the reworking of its smartphone lineup and other changes to its manufacturing, sales and marketing operations. … Earlier this year, BlackBerry said it would likely book $100 million in charges through its fiscal 2014 year, as it cut back staff and reduced other costs. … Last week, the company booked a U.S.$965 million loss for the second quarter and announced the massive layoff that will extend into next year.”

If you developed BlackBerry thumb when BlackBerries were popular, you may still experience pain even if you’ve switched platforms since then. For you, there is hope. Many who suffer from tendonitis will tell you that if you simply lay off the activity that is causing the problem, the pain will eventually subside. You can also employ a stylus, popular among users of tablet computers and e-readers like the Kindle Fire. This is a “pen” with a rubber nub on one end that can be substituted for the finger. Stop texting with your thumbs and instead pick commands and letters with the stylus. Your painful thumb problem probably will subside, given time and rest. In other words, yes, you can recover from BlackBerry thumb.

Sadly, for Research in Motion, there may be no recovery from BlackBerry itself.