April 20th, 2020

2020's good news from the technology world

At the beginning of 2020, I wrote that this year, we can see clearly that we have no future. Considering the current state of the world, some people might say that that was a prophetic statement, but of course it wasn't; I couldn't foresee the current crisis any more than anyone else. I didn't mean that humanity will die out this year. And of course, it won't: Most people who are infected with the coronavirus survive it. Humanity will survive this epidemic, and although the economic threat is much more serious than the biological one, many people will survive the recession (which might well turn into a depression), too. What I meant when I said that we have no future is that there is nowhere to go from here; even if we survive biologically, there is no more progress to make anywhere: Not in science or technology, not in culture or the arts, and not in society, economics, or politics. Everything that can be reasonably conceived has already been tried, and humanity can only rot further in its ideological stagnation.

2020 has been mostly bad news so far, but amid all the noise, there is one bright spot in the technology world, one good thing which 2020 might bring us: For the first time in more than 20 years, the world might finally be free from BlackBerry devices.

BlackBerry has been a plague on humanity since it started making telephones. The very first BlackBerry devices were all right because they were just "pagers", actually devices which could only read and send e-mails, and that's well and good. But then BlackBerry started making telephones, and it was this which largely ushered in the so-called "smartphone" movement, getting people into the habit of carrying telephones everywhere with themselves so that they can talk about the stupidest things imaginable, look at the stupidest things imaginable, and listen to the stupidest things imaginable, all with one device.

Besides the abomination which they brought into the world in the form of the current "smartphone" plague, BlackBerry devices were abominations unto themselves. Even as smartphones, BlackBerry devices were terrible. Usually when a technology product fails, it's for one of four reasons:

1. Bad design. The product serves a purpose which people don't need in the first place, or it is designed in such a way that it fulfills its intended purpose badly.

2. Bad implementation. A great idea can fail if it is implemented badly in practice by engineers who fail to understand the intended purpose of the device or lack the vision to turn that design into a functioning device.

3. Technical problems. The device may have good ideas and even implement those ideas well, but many a good device has been rendered unusable by persistent technical problems such as freezing up, specific components failing repeatedly, or errors that prevent the device from being usable in the way it was meant to be used.

4. Lack of overall applicability. A device may do everything it is intended to do and perform these tasks perfectly, only for the reality to turn out that most people don't really need that functionality, or the device may focus too heavily on a specific functionality and not implement the functionality which most people expect from similar devices.

The BlackBerry has the distinction of scoring a home run here, hitting all four of these points perfectly. The devices were pure garbage from the outset because they were mainly intended as a way to send e-mail, and while e-mail may be a useful thing which many people use, there were already other devices on the market which did much more than just act as e-mail clients, and those devices had already existed for years. The idea of the BlackBerry was poorly implemented, with user interfaces built around a half-baked set of menus that never seemed to offer the options you actually wanted, but gave you plenty of useless options (the result of the BlackBerry being designed by engineers who had no idea what real users actually want to do with devices and thought that the most important thing which people could do with the BlackBerry revolved around the BlackBerry device itself). BlackBerry phones consistently suffered from technical problems; the earlier models had an operating system based on some Java framework which frequently crashed, causing the phones to reboot, and while later devices had a more stable operating system, Heaven help anyone who used a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES, a then-common corporate e-mail solution for BlackBerry users), because the phone would constantly lose its connection to the BES for no discernible reason whatsoever, and when this happened, there was literally no solution except to wipe all the data on the entire phone, restoring it to its factory-new state, and then activating it again, which worked as a solution until the phone lost its fucking BES connection again a week later, requiring the user to go through the whole process all over again. And finally, even when the phones worked, they still didn't do much; in an age when literally hundreds of thousands of apps were available for Android and iOS (which didn't take long to turn into millions), the "Blackberry World" (BlackBerry's name for their own app store) was more like a BlackBerry Town, still inhabited mainly by a tiny core of business apps which no one ever used. The phones were useless, they were designed like garbage, and they were intended for a purpose which other devices had long done better.

We can all be thankful, then, that news has broken in February 2020 that BlackBerry devices are no longer being manufactured. The actual company called BlackBerry Limited, which was originally called Research In Motion (RIM), has already stopped manufacturing phones years ago, but BlackBerry-branded devices were made by China-based TCL Corporation, resulting in the BlackBerry KeyOne, BlackBerry Key2, and BlackBerry Key2 LE, which despite using Android as an operating system were not nearly as popular as Android-based Samsung devices or Apple iPhones, but did have some market success among people who were too stupid to understand that the BlackBerry had been absolutely useless for years. In February 2020, BlackBerry announced that TCL's license to manufacture BlackBerry-branded devices has expired, and therefore they are no longer manufacturing the devices: "As of August 31, 2020, TCL Communication will no longer be selling BlackBerry-branded mobile devices. TCL Communication has no further rights to design, manufacture or sell any new BlackBerry mobile devices." Although TCL's contract with BlackBerry Limited expires in August as the announcement states, it appears that TCL has already stopped actually manufacturing new devices. News stories about this have been numerous, but curiously ignored by the mainstream press, perhaps because BlackBerry has already been a has-been product for some years; articles imparting this news can be found (for example) here, here, here, here, here, and here. These articles note that technically, BlackBerry could still license its brand to other manufacturers, so it's not an absolutely dead proposition, but as of this point in time, it seems that no new BlackBerry-branded devices are being manufactured, and that's a good thing.

In one way, it is a pity because BlackBerry was the last major brand of smartphones to have physical keyboards. As this article notes, if you want a smartphone with a physical keyboard (that is to say, if you are actually smart, and don't want a device which advertises how big its screen is and then covers up half of that screen with an on-screen keyboard that offers no tactile feedback), then you have three options that could still potentially be purchased on the market as semi-new devices (i.e. less than a few years old): The BlackBerry Key2, the BlackBerry Key2 LE (which is like the Key2 but scaled down to be a budget device), and the... um... the Fxtec Pro1. (What? Who?) That's it. Two devices which are basically the same device from a defunct manufacturing agreement that won't produce new devices (meaning the devices are likely to have limited support--if any--going into the future), and one device from an unheard-of manufacturer who just happened to make a device with a keyboard because... well, I guess somebody was bored, and keyboard lol. Actually, the article neglects to mention the Gemini, which is also a smartphone with a physical keyboard made by a company called Planet Computer, and just looking at photos of it, its keyboard seems to be better than that of the Fxtec Pro1. But this is just my own speculation from looking at photos; I do not own either device and do not plan to. I'm quite happy with my GPD Micro PC, thank you.

Since I'm reminiscing about the days of BlackBerry, let me go ahead and publicize some details about the original BlackBerry devices, as I have some old information saved about their associated networks which doesn't seem to exist anywhere on the Internet anymore.

The first device to carry the BlackBerry brand was the BlackBerry 850 (which had an internal model number of R800D-2-PW). It's often called a "pager", even though a pager, in those days, was usually something you called using a telephone number, while the BlackBerry 850 was actually an e-mail device, capable of sending and receiving normal SMTP e-mails. It communicated using a wireless protocol called DataTAC, which is an analog wireless communications protocol, what people today would call a "1G" (first generation) protocol, as digital wireless standards later came to be called 2G. DataTAC afforded network speeds of a whopping 19.2 kbit/s, which doesn't sound like much, but was a lot for wireless data communication back then in the late 1990s. Telephone-line modems topped out at 56 kbit/s, and in practice, you would be lucky to get something in the 40s with them, so to be able to get about half of that speed on a wireless link was great. The BlackBerry 850 didn't do anything except send and receive e-mails on a tiny seven-line black-and-white LCD screen, but that was a good thing, because it meant that people had no delusions of the device being any more than this. It was a small and simple gadget for people who really, really needed to send and receive e-mails on the go, and for those people, it was sufficient. Not great, but adequate. Okay, technically it also functioned as a PDA, with a built-in address book and calendar, but I doubt that anybody actually used it for that purpose; Palm had already made much better PDAs for years at that point.

I actually found an old BlackBerry 850 on a shelf at WeirdStuff Warehouse one day and bought it for $3. (Incidentally, WeirdStuff Warehouse is another sad story of loss, having closed in April 2018 after Google bought the property on 384 W. Caribbean Drive in Sunnyvale, where WeirdStuff had existed for more than 30 years. It's tempting to say "Damn you, Google", but WeirdStuff Warehouse had already lost its raison d'etre some years ago; old and rare computer hardware and software has stopped being as prevalent as it once was, and so WeirdStuff had already long stopped being a place where you could go to find ISA sound cards, 1990s DOS games, and Windows 3.1 office software at a few bucks a piece. Silicon Valley is truly dead, and there is no reason for anyone to go there anymore.) As mentioned, the BlackBerry 850 used the DataTAC network, which at the time of the BlackBerry 850's release was typically supplied by the now-defunct Motient (www.motient.com) (indeed, many BlackBerry 850s were manufactured with Motient's logo printed on the back), which changed its name to TerreStar Corporation on August 16, 2007, although Motient sold its terrestrial DataTAC network to Logo Acquisition Corporation (a subsidiary of GeoLogic Solutions, Inc.) in September 2006. Logo Acquisition Corporation formerly had a website at www.logocorp.net. GeoLogic Solutions was subsequently purchased in December 2007 by XATA Corporation, but the DataTAC network did not survive the transfer, and was decommissioned. After I bought my new (well, new used) BlackBerry 850 around the year 2010, I actually ended up calling a phone number at XATA and asking questions about their DataTAC service; after being transferred several times, I ended up talking to a man whose voice conveyed that he had been working in his field for many years, who informed me that some months ago, all DataTAC towers in the United States had been shut down, and there was no DataTAC service available anywhere in the country anymore. My BlackBerry 850 would never work again. I gave it to a co-worker who collected classic hardware.

What did work, though, was the BlackBerry 950 which I bought from the same place for the same price. The BlackBerry 950 had an internal model number of R900M-2-PW and looked physically identical to the BlackBerry 850, but it had one big difference: Instead of using DataTAC, it used the Mobitex network, which was also a 1G communications protocol that was somewhat slower than DataTAC, but had the advantage of still existing at the time that I bought my BlackBerry 950. When the BlackBerry devices were originally released, users were meant to get a Mobitex account with Aether Systems (www.aethersystems.com/blackberry or www.myaetherbb.com), although before the original BlackBerry devices were released, the earliest major Mobitex carrier in the USA was RAM Mobile Data, which became part of BellSouth in 1995 (and was officially renamed BellSouth Wireless Data). Mobitex was retained when, in 2000, BellSouth and SBC merged to become Cingular Wireless, within which the Mobitex service was called "Cingular Interactive". (After this event, EarthLink also temporarily offered Mobitex access, although EarthLink simply bought their Mobitex access through Cingular.) In turn, Cingular was later absorbed by AT&T and disappeared, but in 2004/2005, before Cingular disappeared, Cingular sold the Mobitex network to Cerberus Capital Management, which offered Mobitex access under the brand Velocita Wireless. Velocita Wireless was sold to Sprint/NEXTEL in 2006, then subsequently sold again in 2007 to United Wireless. In 2008, Velocita Wireless purchased SkyTel and merged its operations under that name. The name Velocita Wireless stopped being used for branding, and when I bought my BlackBerry 950, the Velocita website (www.velocitawireless.com) redirected to SkyTel's website (www.skytel.com). The end result of all of this was that the only Mobitex carrier left in the entire USA was SkyTel; long after the DataTAC network was decommissioned and other carriers dropped Mobitex support, SkyTel was still providing Mobitex service, thus acting as the only carrier left in the USA who could connect the original generation of BlackBerry devices. I got an account with SkyTel (I think it cost something like $20 a month) and sent a test e-mail with my BlackBerry 950. It worked! I never used the device a single time after that, and I closed my account with SkyTel after a few months, realizing that I had no one else to communicate with. After that, I gave my BlackBerry 950 to another co-worker who collected classic hardware.

Try finding any of that history anywhere on the Internet. It's all been lost. This history is only about 10 years old, and everyone has already forgotten it without even bothering to document it.

I'll close by mentioning the other early BlackBerry devices in passing. RIM's first product was not actually a "BlackBerry"-branded device, but something they called the RIM-900 Inter@ctive Pager. It also ran on the Mobitex network and was physically similar to the later BlackBerry 850 and 950, but the RIM-900 was a "clamshell" type of device with a folding lid that made it somewhat bulky in comparison to the later BlackBerry devices. Larger still was the BlackBerry 857 (model number R857D-2-5), which was the first BlackBerry model to be the size of a regular cellular phone, although it was still a data-only device, meaning it had no voice capability. It did have a considerably larger screen than the earlier BlackBerry models. It used the DataTAC network. It was followed up by the BlackBerry 957 (model number R957M-2-5), which was almost identical to the BlackBerry 857 in shape and function, except that the BlackBerry 957, again, used Mobitex instead of DataTAC. The BlackBerry 957 was the last BlackBerry device to be released before RIM began focusing on voice-enabled phones rather than data-only devices, although after several voice-enabled BlackBerry models had already been released, RIM did specially release the BlackBerry 5790, produced primarily to address the demand for a more recent device that used the then-popular Mobitex network.

And that was it. Those devices were pretty good for their time and what they were meant to do. And then BlackBerry devices started to suck. Thank goodness the Earth can finally be free of their scourge. It just goes to show that even in the worst of times, sometimes the enemies of humanity can be defeated.