NEW YORK — Darren Kao has two apps on his Sony Xperia Android phone — WeChat to stay in touch with his Chinese clients, and the Starbucks wallet, for his morning caffeine fix. For everything else, he’s got his trusty BlackBerry.
Kao is one of a shrinking tribe of diehard BlackBerry fans dedicated to navigating modern life with what most people consider an obsolete appliance. Echoing many BlackBerry devotees, he says iPhones and Androids just can’t match BlackBerry’s voice sound quality, centralized notification hub, and physical keyboard.
To outsiders, it’s an increasingly perverse lifestyle choice. BlackBerry Ltd. has committed to updating the BB10 operating system only through the end of the year. It has no stated plans for another BB10 phone and is accelerating a pivot to handsets running Google’s Android. Even President Obama, who famously fought to keep his BlackBerry despite security objections from the Secret Service, told Jimmy Fallon last week he finally ditched his Berry earlier this year (reportedly for a Samsung).
Some voices on Wall Street would like BlackBerry to move on, as well. Macquarie analyst Gus Papageorgiou, who’s covered the Canadian company on and off since 2002, said in May that ditching hardware altogether would actually help the bottom line and cheer the market. Chief executive John Chen has said he’ll do that if he can’t make the handset unit profitable by September.
He can probably expect renewed pressure when BlackBerry reports earnings on Thursday. On average, 21 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg expect the company to post a loss of 7 cents and pull in $471 million in revenue. BlackBerry reported just $2.2 billion in revenue last fiscal year, its lowest showing since 2006. The shares have fallen about 20 percent in the last 12 months.
At the end of March, about 23 million people around the world were using BlackBerrys, including the Priv Android phone, according to a company filing. Three times as many people were using the handsets two years earlier, but the continued loyalty is striking all the same.
Getting non-BlackBerry applications onto a BB10 phone requires patience and some technical skill. Friends and family often find themselves adding BlackBerry Messenger to their roster of messaging apps to keep in touch with the few remaining BlackBerry users in their life.
Kao, an IT consultant who runs a mobile software startup in Ottawa, keeps the Wi-Fi hotspot of his BlackBerry on at all times to allow WeChat to function on his Android. He refuses to message with his wife and friends through anything other than BlackBerry Messenger. He’s currently using a Classic, an updated version of the legendary BlackBerry Bold. It was released more than two years ago. “Even my girls were brought up playing with BlackBerrys as toys,” he said.
Kim Kardashian has said she buys old BlackBerrys on eBay to ensure a steady supply. Other members of the tribe painstakingly follow online tutorials on work-arounds that will make popular apps like Snapchat and Instagram work on BB10. The results are often glitchy, says Howard Mesharer, a 23-year-old BlackBerry fan from Columbus, Ohio.
When Chen chose to make phones running Android instead of BB10 last year, it opened a rift in the BlackBerry community, according to Chris Parsons, editor in chief of CrackBerry.com, BlackBerry fandom’s central gathering place.
“It caused a little bit of chaos because they essentially made people make a choice at that point, are you a BlackBerry user or are you essentially an Android user,” said Parsons, who’s known as Bla1ze online.
One CrackBerry user, known only as Cobalt232, found a way to re-work Android’s source code, stripping out certain elements that stop Android apps from working on BB10. He’s allowed the diehards to download apps from Google’s store that don’t otherwise work on BB10, Parsons said.
Mesharer, who works as a server at a restaurant, used Cobalt’s hack so he could Snapchat with his friends, up until about a month ago, when he finally caved and bought an LG phone running Android.
“Why do you need to do so much just to get an app that anybody can get in five seconds? You have to work for 45 minutes to keep Snapchat,” he said. “No developer wants to develop for BlackBerry. It’s over.”
Mesharer, who used the square-screened BlackBerry Passport before he made the switch, said people sometimes mistook the phone for a Nintendo Gameboy. Ask him which BlackBerrys he’s used over the years and he launches into a litany of names and numbers: “Curve 8520, Curve 8900, Bold 9900, Bold 9700, Curve 8320, Z10, Classic, Q10, Passport.”
Kao does the same. He got his first one in 2003, when he landed his first job out of college at IBM. He recalls being the envy of all his friends.
“It used to be a badge of honor to be able to carry BlackBerrys and now it’s almost a shame,” he said. “People look at it like it’s a dinosaur, a museum piece.”