BlackBerry Elegy

TODO (TODO)

~4,100 words

Published:

Last modified: January 8th, 12,022 HE

Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Horatio, Hamlet

The scene: a social gathering, in which your humble author is thrust admist the madding crowd.

The time: too many occasions to count.

The cue: perhaps I am asked to look something up online, to settle a dispute. Perhaps I want to ask someone for an ETA. Any number of reasons, but always the same result: my hand withdraws from my pocket clutching a small, weighty, rounded object.

An onlooker spots it, and their eyes draw wide as their mouth begins to form the words of that immortal refrain:

Is that a Blackberry, I didn’t know they were still going?

Every time. Every time, delivered in that same tone of exaggerated amazement. Never quite able to conceal the trembling, though; the trembling that comes with awareness that one is in the presence of the divine, and that one has been judged and found unworthy.

After the canned call would come the equally-canned response: I just like it for the clicky buttons. Sometimes, that would prompt reminisces about BlackBerries past, or a request to just hold it, but more often that response would mark the end of the line of conversation.

I regret now that I never followed up on those reminisces with a question that now seems so obvious: why BlackBerries past? Because, ultimately, the clicky buttons line was a crutch, to save me and my interlocutor the pain of honesty: that they were but hogs, grown fat feasting on slop.

This is the story of my BlackBerry, the slow end of the world and the virtues of the Amish healthcare system. It is a story of love (both experienced and exploited), loss (both mine and yours) and lessons (both learned and forgotten). It is a story with an unhappy ending.

I am cast out from the Garden, forced to eat slop with the hogfolk when just moments ago I was feasting on the rarest delicacies. Right now, whilst the wound is still raw, I’m acutely aware of the downgrade, but over time my expectations will re-adjust and I will notice it less and less. It is likely that I, like the rest of the world before me, will develop a taste for the slop. My aim with this piece, then, is to capture my feelings now for posterity. My Classic deserves nothing less as a send-off.

Background: A Day that Shall Live in Infamy

Only four days into this new year, the borrowed time on which my beloved BlackBerry Classic continued to live finally ran out. After thank[ing their] many loyal customers and partners over the years, BlackBerry (the company) finally pulled the plug on the legacy services relied on by pre-Android BlackBerries. As of that date, the phones are bricked.

As the mobile phone that I have carried daily for the best part of seven years, the Classic stands a good chance of being the single object I have spent the most time interacting with in my life, both in terms of overall duration of ownership and sheer cumulative volume of time spent using (and the combination of those two dimensions likely puts it ahead of other possible contenders, such as my childhood bed or my now eleven-year-old computer).

If we count the similarly-shaped Curve 8520 that I had before the Classic, the distinctive BlackBerry handfeel may well be the physical sensation I am most familiar with, short of some autonomous biological process such as breathing. Without wanting to unduly anthropomorphise an inanimate object, I have used this phone for longer than I have known most of my friends.1

The very small community of existing BlackBerry holdouts reacted with our well-honed sense of technological fatalism. I don’t feel sad about this., wrote the founder of once-huge BlackBerry fan site CrackBerry. We’ve known it was coming and longtime BlackBerry fans have already been put through the emotional ringer many times over the years. Official updates ended in 2019, after all, and we always knew the indefinite stay of execution for the critical underlying services wasn’t going to last forever.

From Kim Kardashian to multiple Canadians to the good folk of Hacker News and a guy I once sat next to at a dinner, there’s a lot of former BlackBerry owners and us holdouts reflecting on the good times right now.

What Has Been Lost

The fact of the matter is that the Classic was just shy of being the ideal pocket computer. I’ve already detailed my modest requirements for such a device, only five of which the Classic failed to satisfy. If that sounds like a lot, consider that every alternative I assessed fared worse. Two years on from making that list, next to nothing has changed: neither in my requirements, nor in the alternatives’ inability to fulfil them. If the Classic fell just short of perfection, even the best alternatives barely exceed adequacy. Any BlackBerry-related thread over the past few years will be full of ex-users bemoaning what they once had (see this one for one such example).

However, the years since I compiled that list have exposed me more to the true horror of the world outside of my cosseted experience. I always knew that the slop beyond my golden tower looked unpalatable, but it was not until being forced to sample some that I learned just how rancid it was. For what I failed to realise was that requirements such as allow me to read all my emails in one place and fit comfortably in a human-sized hand were not universal.

Consider the former: on my new Android-adjacent device I have to install an additional app to send and receive emails, which sends its own push notifications separate from all other messaging apps, as well as emails from services with their own bespoke apps (e.g., ProtonMail). After I dismiss or follow such a notification, it is just gone. The email that instigated it is, of course, still visible in my inbox via the email app, and the messages are still visible within their respective app(s).

In the Times When Things Were Good Still™, I experienced the ineffable joys of the BlackBerry Hub, a single unified location for all notifications from all apps, listed chronologically and indefinitely. WhatsApp notifications, emails from five different accounts, system notifications, SMS messages, the lot.

Yes, there is a poor man’s version available on Googled Android, but that runs up against one of my top non-functional requirements: a phone that respects my privacy. Paying for cut-rate convenience with their privacy and dignity is how the journey to Slop City began for the hogfolk, and I will be damned if I’ll embark on the same path now.

Remolding My Trotters

Let’s explore that second example, about expecting a hand-held device to fit neatly in my hand, further. The BlackBerry Classic, and the whole traditionally-shaped BlackBerry line, were amongst the last phones designed for an older, better generation of human being, born with normal-sized human hands. As the hogfolk deliriously buried their snouts deeper into their feed troughs and accidentally created surveillance capitalism, theirs gradually morphed (I can only assume) into a pair of hideous meaty frying pans.

My Classic fit perfectly into the palm of my hand, bottom-right corner tucked into my heart line and pinned by my hypothenar muscles, three fingertips wrapped around the left-hand side to prevent lateral movement. From this position, like the captain of a great naval vessel seated in the midst of his ship’s bridge, I could easily reach every inch of the phone with little more than the occasional subtly flexion and extension of the rear fingers:

Equally, if I had a long message to write, I could easily prop the phone up onto a supportive finger and easily reach the entire keyboard with the same thumb:

My new phone is 24 % taller than the Classic (I counted), yet I have gained nothing from this unwanted largesse except that I am now unable to comfortably use the device with one hand: either I limit my interactions to the ~55 % of the the screen that my thumb can reach whilst nestling the bottom-right corner of the device securely in my palm, or I extend my thumb coverage to ~70 % of the screen (still down from the 100 % I was achieving before) at the cost of precariously balancing the fragile device on my unnaturally-flattened fingers, its centre of gravity positioned over the top of my hand.

The new phone, though, is the same width as my Classic, so why can my fingertips no longer wrap around the side? Here we see in microcosm what I shall go on to describe in macrocosm. The new phone, in the pursuit of delicacy, is drastically more fragile than the Classic, which one could reliably use to beat a dog to death with. As a result, it requires a protective casing to stand any hope of long-term survival, which adds precious millimeters to the width, pushing it just outside of my fingertip span. In turn, this means the phone is now too large to use in one hand, yet too narrow to comfortably hold in two hands. Hence, I’m sure, the popularity of the tablet in the late 2000s, designed for two-hand usage. But then this was too large, and the answer was the phablets of the early 2010s, smaller than the tablet but larger than the original phone.

Every innovation in one direction caused a new problem. Every solution moved in the opposite direction. However, rather than cancelling one another out and converging back on the perfection of the Classic, each one overshot that point or set off in a slight different vector, and the end result is that everything is omnidirectionally a bit shitty now.

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self

As a wise man once said, I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. This top-shelf brain (not to mention my profligate loquaciousness) I attribute in large part to the constraints imposed upon me by the limits of Android app emulation on the Classic.

What a younger and more naive Ben decried in 2016 has since proven to be a blessing in disguise. This may shock you, dear reader, but I was something of a latecomer to the idea of restraint. I think it’s entirely possible that I would still be on Facebook if the dropping of the native BlackBerry app hadn’t limited its ability to pervade deeper into my life, and as a possible consequence (though it is hard to establish definitive causality) I have participated in precisely 0 genocides and have felt next to no temptation to assault the seat of my country’s government in the misplaced belief that doing so would thwart the machinations of a global child molestation and/or consumption cabal.

Over the past several years, the currents of the world have flowed on and on, towards a dystopian cyberpunk hellscape that I look forward to spending the remainder of my prime resisting before it invariably crushes me into a fine paste. However, throughout those years my Classic acted as a rock to which I could hold on to against the flow.

No, that metaphor is not quite accurate: the Classic was an overhanging tree branch, providing both a safety net and the means to pull myself to the bank. The serendipity of many of these developments is often more perfect than any conscious, human-designed digital detox could have been.

Better to Have Loved and Lost Than to Have Continued Using Tinder

As an example of this, Tinder was never (to my knowledge) available as a native BlackBerry app, but back in my first couple years of university the Android app worked almost flawlessly. I would swipe through and, with Lancaster being what it is, finish and delete my account to start again.

Nothing good ever happened as a result of the app, and re-running the game is clearly ridiculous in retrospect, but evidently the operant conditioning had its hooks in me. I had found a combination of spices and flavouring that sufficiently suppressed the taste of slop. Then, I went on Tinder on someone else’s phone, and had my first taste of raw slop.

This was after the app had introduced Tinder Plus, after which users received only a limited number of free swipes per day and had to pay for any extras. However, for whatever reasons my app never received this update, and so I was insulated from this dark pattern just when I would have likely been most vulnerable to it. I like to think that I never would have paid a penny for the app, but presumably a whole lot of Tinder Plus users told themselves the same thing once.

I still poked around with my outdated, but objectively less shit2 version of the app, but denied the regular dopamine hit of new features and constant novelty, I got bored and moved on. At some point, the app moved forward to an Android version that my BlackBerry couldn’t emulate, but by that point I had long since uninstalled it. Meanwhile, it just kept getting worse.

This story is indicative of any number of similar stories I could share. My maps apps stopped working, so I learned to use road signs and bus stop posters to get around, and now I have a reliable inuitive navigational ability. The loss of the Facebook native app meant that it couldn’t send me push notifications, and so I only interacted with it on my terms and left it when it stopped providing me value. Various media-based social media (remember Vine? I don’t) came and went, with my BlackBerry unable to take sufficient-quality photos or emulate the required Android versions.

Boiling Point

The Amish are a collection of Christian religious sects, originating in Germany and now predominantly found in a handful of US states (Pennsylvania and Ohio primarily). Most Amish live apart from the non-Amish population, and are often easily distinguished by their plain dress and use of horse and buggies. Both are part of their practice of simple living, which is simultaneously their most distinctive and most misunderstood characteristic.

Most people think that the Amish have set some sort of arbitrary 16th-century cut-off point and refuse to adopt anything invented beyond that. In fact, they have no problem adopting contemporary technologies (such as modern medicine). What they actually do is soberly assess the pros and cons of each new development, and only adopt those that they believe will provide a net positive to the community, and not adversely affect the tight-knit, simple, rural communities that they cherish. As a consequence, they have unintentionally developed a healthcare system that outperforms the US healthcare system on every metric.

The world did not get to where it is today all at once, it took many years of effort from many different parties, each obeying their own perverse incentive structures and systemic pathologies, and every user-hostile decision that went unchallenged moved the acceptable norm slightly further and further away. The rest of the world was the proverbial frog, sitting comfortably in the pot as the water temperature slowly rose around them; meanwhile, ensconced within my protective BlackBerry-guaranteed time capsule, I recoiled each time I was thrown directly into the pot at its present boil.

I would experience, with one wayward poke around on a modern phone, a year or two’s worth of backwards progress hitting all at once. I was Neo and the BlackBerry was my red pill, and I never even asked for it. I stuck with the BlackBerry at the time because of its clear practical superiority and satistfying handfeel, and it repaid my loyalty by protecting me in ways I never could have appreciated until much later.

It made me Amish, and it kept me safe.

Lone Wolf and Cub

My BlackBerry Teacher

So, what have seven years spent wilfully out of the loop of consumer technology’s relentless forward march taught me?

Accessibility Benefits Everyone

All the best Web sites look outdated, because the modern Web is bullshit. Compare Reddit to the old Reddit, or to fellow news aggregator Hacker News. Now, imagine that same comparison on a 3.5-inch 720×720 px screen.

The Web browser on my BlackBerry was ancient, and through this I experienced the many bullshits of modern Web development: sites not designed for non-standard screen aspect ratios that would cover up the page content with modals asking me to sign up to newsletters; sites that used fancy new styling techniques without providing a fallback for older browsers; pages chock-full of tracking bullshit and unnecessary video content that would take a prohibitively long time to load.

As a Web guy with a full complement of limbs and everything pretty much working as it’s supposed to (knock on wood), this was an eye-opening experience. The best way to learn the value of accessibility is to experience the things you build through another lens, but how many Web designers actually have a screen reader to hand to test with? Using an ancient browser on an underpowered device taught me the importance of progressive enhancement, of building the minimal sufficient product and then intelligently adding the extra bells and whistles. Moreover, it taught me the value of empowering the user to choose which of those bells and whistles they wanted, rather than trying to guess for them.

It also taught me how focussing on accessibility can reap unexpected rewards. I doubt that anyone behind any of the sites that continued to work well for me thought about how their changes might affect Classic users, but by focusing on a simple layout, clear navigation, unfancy styling and lightweight content, whether they were intending to help visually-impaired users on screen readers, colour-blind users or those with limited data capacities, they nonetheless helped me.

Now, when I ask myself how would this look on my Classic, many others may benefit.

Smash the Walled Gardens

Most popular services are actively hostile to their users. There is no technical reason why Twitter cannot talk to Facebook and allow users to share posts between one service and another. There is no technical reason why either service requires you to use their front-ends to access them, rather than allowing you to choose your own as your tastes dictate (cf. email).

The only reason why these things are not possible (or, at least, not easy to do) is because these services think you are an idiot—a data-hog to be milked for all of your delicious bacon and then discarded. These services exploit you for their own gain. You are probably in an abusive relationship with most of the services you use on a daily basis. Don’t be.

The Value of Open Standards

In contrast to the above examples, there are also services that think you are cool and want you to be able to do great things with them. These are your friends. These are based on standards that allow you to change how you interact with them if you want to, that give you easy ways of exporting your data in a format that other services will accept for import. They try to win you over by being better than the competitors, not by tricking or trapping you.

Every few months, someone will complain about the death of RSS, but RSS can never really die. The standard is publicly available, anyone can implement it at any time, and any implementation will work with any other tool based on the same standard.

Another great example is the RFC 6238 standard for one-time passwords. Every service that allowed me to add multi-factor authentication to my accounts would tell me to use this app or that app (for example, Microsoft insists that you use Microsoft Authenticator). What they usually neglected to mention, because they think you are a simple rube, is that you can use any app built on the standard, which included my BlackBerry-native Authomator.

Live Free or Die Hard

One of the few drawbacks of the Classic was that it was not free (as in freedom)—the operating system was incredibly locked down, and even the newer BlackBerry models running Android are impossible to install alternate operating systems on.3 In this way, though, the Classic taught me the value of software (and hardware) freedom. It was my equivalent to Stallman’s printer.

I switched from Windows to GNU/Linux in 2014 and never looked back, but it wasn’t until 2017 that I became a card-carrying member of the FSF. Between those two milestones, I saw countless apps and tools that I used die because the creators moved on, and there was no way for anyone else to maintain them. I would have invested the time to learn how BB10 (the Classic’s OS) worked if it would have meant I could help it carry on, but alas. Yet even within the locked-down world of the Classic, the holdout community still managed to figure out how to do some remarkable things.

The Classic first radicalised me to the cause of software freedom, and then hardened my resolve. Now, whenever I receive pushback for insisting on using open file formats over proprietary ones, or have to work with a janky UI made by someone with no graphic design skills in their spare time, or find myself pages-deep in some poorly-maintained documentation—in short, whenever my chosen path threatens to be inconvenient—I remember the literal days I once spent trying to access my Classic’s internal phone storage using BlackBerry software I had to download from the Internet Archive and emulate in WINE, and I know that I would take a thousand inconveniences for the sake of this freedom.

Time to Leave the Savage Reservation

I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.

A.E. Housman, The Laws of God, The Laws of Man

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World depicts a dystopian future of limitless, hedonistic pleasure. The population are controlled not through Big Brother-esque authoritarian violence, but through a constant flood of glittering media and a happiness-producing drug called Soma that guarantees their docility. Over the course of the story, two of the characters visit a Savage Reservation, in which a handful of people continue to live the old-fashioned ways, deprived of the joys of Soma and the dubious freedoms enjoyed by the protagonists.

There they meet John, one of the savages, who returns with the characters to visit the brave new world of the book’s title, and becomes the subject of great fascination and amusement to the city folk. Ultimately, unable to fit in with the changed mores of the society he finds himself trapped within, he retreats to an ascetic life in an abandoned hilltop lighthouse. Despite his efforts, renewed media interest leads reporters and gawpers to flock to the site, culminating in a orgy of violence to which John eventually succumbs. The following day, more reporters arrive to find John’s hanging body in the lighthouse.

I’m not going to go quite that far because of the loss of a phone. The fact of the matter, though, is that even if every task I could easily perform before is now only 5 % more difficult, inefficient or time-consuming to do (and many, including basic typing, are much closer to 60 %), the cumulative result of it all is that my life is now, appreciable, slightly worse than it was a few days ago. Such is life.

So I will grieve my lost Eden, and I will move on, but I will always remember the lessons that my Classic taught me.

Oink oink.

Footnotes


  1. To be clear, this attachment is not to any one individual object. I have owned three different Classics. Rather, this is attachment to the ideal Platonic Form of the Classic, of which I was blessed with three physical manifestations. ↩︎

  2. BlackBerry really should have adopted this as their official slogan some time around 2015. ↩︎

  3. At least at time of writing, however, a fully-free pocket computer with sufficient functionality does not exist. ↩︎