The year is 1999. Bill Clinton is the President of the United States, gas is 94 cents a gallon, Bondi Blue iMacs are a staple in dorm rooms across the country, and Microsoft is trying to bring the desktop Windows experience to the pocket, pushing its Palm-size PC concept (after Palm had quashed the original “Palm PC” branding) on a world still feeling jilted by the failures of the Apple Newton. 3Com subsidiary Palm and its heavyweight licensee Handspring have figured out something interesting about the still-nascent PDA market, though: people like simplicity. If an electronic organizer does what it says it’s going to do, keeps your information in sync with your PC, runs for forever and a day on a single set of batteries, and does it all with a minimum of fuss, people will buy. It’s an exciting, challenging, and rapidly-changing era in the mobile business.
This is the landscape Canadian start-up Research In Motion faced at the tail end of the millennium. It seemed clear that “staying connected on the road” was the Next Big Thing — email had finally started to become a standard in corporate communication, after all — but the roadblocks were many and formidable. “Always on” cellular technologies like GPRS and 1xRTT weren’t yet readily available, and circuit-switched data running over pervasive D-AMPS and CDMA networks was painfully slow and expensive — not to mention a death wish for battery life.
Manufacturers and service providers took a two-pronged approach to overcoming the limitations: one, keep data consumption modest; and two, bypass the traditional cellphone networks altogether. Two-way paging networks like ReFLEX didn’t have the bandwidth to handle the data demands of a late 1990s-era PDA with a big display, but DataTAC and Mobitex networks — running at a blistering 19.2Kbps and 8Kbps, respectively — were already widely deployed across North America. Neither technology had been conceived with consumer use in mind, but they were robust, proven, and most importantly, available.