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Crackberry withdrawal: BlackBerry's collapse leaves users struggling to switch

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As the company scales back, diehards are left to fend for themselves

RIM BlackBerry 8310 beat up (1020)
RIM BlackBerry 8310 beat up (1020)

On September 20th, BlackBerry broke some very bad news to its users. After a disastrous quarter, the company was cutting staff and retreating from the consumer market to focus on enterprise, something CEO Thorsten Heins called "difficult but necessary." BlackBerry’s days of competing with Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft were over. The business world is still struggling with the news, but it’s been equally hard for the company’s core of loyal fans, who have stuck with the platform through years of troubled launches and ecosystem decline.

Too little, too late

To some extent, this move has been a long time coming. "We've already seen it shift," says CrackBerry editor Kevin Michaluk, who’s spent years covering the community. "Over the last three years, in the US especially, many of the BlackBerry fans have just moved on." The ones that haven’t have been stuck with a troubled ecosystem and conflicting messages from corporate HQ.

James Rose is one of those fans, a BlackBerry user since 2007 who considers the Curve 8900 the best phone he’s ever used. But even though he bought a Z10, he says the shift to the new OS was too little, too late. "After things like the PlayBook not getting updated, a little choice could be good for the market," Rose says. He says he’ll hold on with the Z10 as long as he can, but will probably end up with an iPhone.

He owns an iPod touch, "strictly for music."

For others, the problems at BlackBerry HQ are no reason to jump ship. Will Abraham is a 34-year-old IT professional based in New York; he uses a Q10, side-loading any Android apps he needs. He bought the phone in June, as early as he could. He even switched to T-Mobile to get it, incurring an early termination fee from Sprint when he learned the carrier wouldn't have the phone until later in the summer. He loves the portrait keyboard layout, and for that, he says the Q10 is still the best on the market. He finds iOS too slow, too flashy — although he does own an iPod touch, "strictly for music."

For Abraham, BlackBerry's decline is bad news, but it’s not the end. "I'm definitely not happy with the way things have gone," Abraham says, but he's still not planning on ditching the platform. "They did use that word 'prosumer,' which, if that means I can still get their phones, then that's what I'm doing." When The Verge asked what he would do if he had to switch, if the prosumer angle didn't pan out, he said: "I, honestly, I would have to… ugh." He paused for a moment to think. "I guess I would have to go Android, but I would be very, very reluctant."

"I would pay $1,000 for a Q10. I would probably pay $2,000 for a Q10."

It's a surprisingly common sentiment. For many longtime BlackBerry users, it doesn't matter if the phones are hard to find or a little more expensive. They'll follow the brand anywhere. "I would pay $1,000 for a Q10," said one BlackBerry analyst, who asked not to be named because of professional licensing concerns. "I would probably pay $2,000 for a Q10. I use it all the time. I live on it. It's really important to me."

More than 70 percent of BlackBerry buyers opted for the old operating system

For users trained on iOS and Android, the appeal may be hard to pin down, but BlackBerry fans point to a unique design ethos that hasn't caught on with the rest of the market: an emphasis on speed over graphics and tactile touch over the blank slate of a touchscreen. A number of users proudly told me they could navigate their phones blindfolded. Those features are especially popular with business users — the analyst pointed to bankers and real estate agents as natural core users. "That's how BlackBerry got its cachet," he says. "Important people carry BlackBerrys. And it's probably going to go back to that."

"I own 20 of these. I'm never switching."

There are also the more subtle tricks of UI, which feel more intuitive the longer you live with them. For someone who’s been using a BlackBerry for five years straight, the various tricks of the interface have become second nature. Switching to a new OS would mean starting from scratch, and for many users it’s simply not worth it. It was even a problem for BlackBerry's own platform, as more than 70 percent of users who bought a BlackBerry phone this summer opted for the older and more familiar operating system, ignoring the new-and-improved BlackBerry 10 OS entirely. "It's easy to think of the diehard BlackBerry users as fanboys, but that's not really the story here," Michaluk says. "It's mostly just regular people. They have their smartphone, they've had it for years, they know it inside and out, they know it's not perfect and they don't care because, for them, it works."

In other cases, that zeal for the familiar can curdle into something more extreme. Michaluk says that in New York earlier this year, he ran into an older man in an elevator using a BlackBerry 8700, a phone that first hit the market back in 2006. When Michaluk asked about it, the man said, "Let me tell you something. I own 20 of these. I'm never switching. This is my phone. I know it." For the man in the elevator, it’s a great plan — but for anyone in the business of selling Z10s, relying on that kind of customer can be downright scary.