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They look pretty much like the rest of us until they need to make a call. That’s when suddenly they will take out a smallish device so universally known to one (older) generation and totally foreign to any others. Ranging from tech gurus to celebrities to CEOs, they have revealed themselves as members of the BlackBerry Underground.
It’s hard to fathom now—in the age of the emoji—that the BlackBerry was once the apex predator of smartphones. As recently as the turn of the 21st century, reaching for your Black-Berry—to answer an e-mail poolside, for example—marked one as a digital Jedi.
No more. Though still 23 million strong, according to company figures, BlackBerry users are but a fraction of the 1.5 billion users in the total global smartphone market. Newer BlackBerry versions are still widely sold, but finding BlackBerry gear in its prior forms can mean navigating an online wilderness of digital flea markets where sellers—some of suspect provenance—hawk everything from the penny ante, such as earphones for early speakerless models, to the holy grail: purportedly brand-new “unlocked” devices that allow Underground members to pop in a SIM card from any mobile service provider and reconnect to their networks.
If there’s a safe space for the BlackBerry Underground, it would be CrackBerry.com. The high priest of all things BlackBerry is website co-founder Kevin Michaluk, who reigns as CrackBerry Kevin. “It was my first love in the smartphone game,” says Michaluk.
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The kid from rural Manitoba almost missed his date with the device, which became well known for its iconic keyboard that types with a reassuring clicking sound. “Second day of work, somebody from IT came down and gave me a BlackBerry,” he says. “It was this ugly thing. I didn’t touch it for two weeks. Then I started to use the darn thing, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god! How did I ever live without this?’ ” And he hasn’t lived without it since. Out with friends one night in 2006, staring at their BlackBerries instead of talking to each other, “one guy said, ‘CrackBerry,’ ” Michaluk recalls. “I said, ‘dot com,’ and went home and bought the domain.” Webster’s sealed his fate when it added CrackBerry to the dictionary as the New Word of the Year.
On the site, CrackBerry Kevin’s demo videos are catnip to the BlackBerry Underground, and he’s penned the urtext of the Underground, “CrackBerry: True Tales of BlackBerry Use and Abuse,” a book that documents the primal experiences of early adopters who turned the idiom “all thumbs” into the smartphone industry.
A major goal of Underground members is acquiring backup devices. It takes effort. But for the thumb-driven, there’s no other option. “I strongly prefer the BlackBerry—and 95 percent of the reason is the keyboard,” says John W. Rutledge, president and CEO of Oxford Capital Group, one of the leading hospitality real estate investment and development companies in the U.S. “I run my life with hundreds of e-mails a day with team members internally and externally,” he adds. “I am just dramatically more productive and efficient when I’m typing with my thumbs on this keyboard.”
While he’s all about taking calculated risks in business—his current project will reframe Chicago’s skyline around a new 56-story residential tower—Rutledge has minimized the risk of being caught without his BlackBerry Classic. “I bought several of them and have some backups in storage should they discontinue them.”
Stockpiling reserves is de rigueur. Riding an elevator in New York City recently, Michaluk commented on his neighbor’s BlackBerry 8700. The owner of the 2006-vintage device shot back, “Kid, I love it so much I have 12 more sitting in my desk, so if they break or they quit selling them, I still have this thing because I love it that much.”
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Facing the future without a BlackBerry is devastating. Just ask Kim Kardashian. The world’s highest-profile BlackBerry user, Kardashian scoured eBay for years to snag replacements for her discontinued Bold. Her world came crashing down last summer. “Sooo my BlackBerry Bold died. I can’t find any more on eBay,” the reality TV star tweeted. “Reality is starting to set in and I’m getting sad.”
BlackBerry is about to reward loyalists with a new device that adds a big screen and Android apps. It’s a head turner, Michaluk says, light years ahead of the ugly duckling that first won CrackBerry Kevin’s heart. “It looks awesome,” he says.
Being busy refashioning Chicago’s cityscape, Rutledge hadn’t heard the news. When he did, the developer cut to the chase: “Is the new one going to have the keyboard that we like? As long as I have my real keyboard, then I’m happy.”
No worries, says Michaluk. “Your thumbs are right there as you’re typing. It felt very BlackBerry.”