Movies have the power to transport us to other times and worlds. They are a chance to experience different lives and viewpoints from our own. But for those of us in Waterloo, the premier of Matt Johnson’s film BlackBerry is a chance to see our local tech history play out on the big screen.
The film is loosely based on the book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry by journalists Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. BlackBerry tells a fictionalized story of the rise of the smartphone maker from its early days as Research in Motion on the second floor of a commercial plaza in Waterloo to the world’s leading smartphone brand BlackBerry.
Since the film’s premiere at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, social media has been flooded with memories from former BlackBerry employees about their time at the company. The posts are a mix of positive experiences and regrets on the decisions that ultimately led to the company losing its lead to Apple and Google.
The premiere locally at the Princess Cinema also has our team reminiscing about our experiences working as BlackBerry Development Partners and the lessons we learned that we’ve carried forward.
Before launching BitBakery, our team worked at another development company that created applications for BlackBerry smartphones—including two of the top downloaded apps on the platform. We were able to travel to BlackBerry and trade conferences around the world, from San Francisco to Orlando to Indonesia. Wes Worsfold, CEO of BitBakery, said it was an exciting time to build apps for the platform.
“They were an enterprise-focused company who’s customer base was quickly becoming more consumer-focused. Our team at the time were building ringtone and wallpaper apps and we really understood consumer preferences,” says Worsfold. “We were able to innovate because we understood consumers.”
BlackBerry smartphones were known for their LED lights that alerted users to different message types, signal statuses, and battery levels. But while the lights were helpful, the user could not customize them. An LED customizer was one of the first apps we built for the Pearl entry-level smartphone.
“We understood that people wanted to personalize their devices. What can be more personalized than changing that static colour or even cycling through colours? It was a huge gap, and that led us down the path to thinking about other things that we knew consumers wanted,” says Worsfold.
That path of focusing on consumers led to the creation of ColorID. The app was tied into the BlackBerry OS Personal Information Management (PIM) API. This API gave developers access to information, including address books, calendars, tasks, and memopads. With this data, the user could customize the LED light for specified contacts in their address book.
“We were able to tie it into the contacts and the device PIN. Not only that, but we also developed our own advanced analytics tools to track how they used the app,” says Worsfold.
At first, the team thought consumers would use it to customize the LED light for BBM contacts. Before iMessage, BBM was the gold standard for peer-to-peer messaging on a smartphone. But the analytics showed users were using ColorID for something else.
“They were using it for text messages because business people that were sitting in the office wanted to know when they received a personal text so they could answer it. They wanted to notified silently when a personal contact messaged them,” says Worsfold.
The combination of our internally-developed analytics and consumer insights gave the team an advantage in creating apps that were what we call “sticky” today. Ask a former BlackBerry user how they took a screenshot of their device, and they’ll likely smile and say ScreenMuncher. The app featured a monster who “munched” the screen after the user did a simple key combination on their BlackBerry. While it was simple, the character and the sound effect caught the attention of hundreds of thousands of users.
“We weren't the first to make a screenshot app, but we were the first to do it in a fun way,” says Worsfold. “The funny thing about the app is that one of the premium features was to remove the watermark. We thought people would want that, but the watermark become prestigious. People actually didn't want it removed.”
Joe Reda, our CTO, is the one team member who had RIM on his resume. Reda had roles as an Application Development Consultant and mobile developer and saw the rise and fall of the smartphone maker from the inside.
“There's a story about Steve Jobs removing the Apple II from the lobby of Apple headquarters because he didn't want them to rest on their laurels. He always wanted his team to focus on innovation,” says Reda. “I think that's one thing that BlackBerry really suffered from—they really couldn't imagine the competition catching up and surpassing them in any aspect.”
For Worsfold, the most significant takeaways from our time building apps for BlackBerry smartphones were the importance of focusing on the customer and developing a deep understanding of a platform.
“The apps we built—and their success—were examples of just how close we were to the customer and what we could do as developers on that platform,” says Worsfold. “I felt like there were times when we knew the platform and its capabilities more than the people who created it.”