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'The forefront of Canadian innovation': First BlackBerry phone introduced 25 years ago

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It’s been a quarter of a century since the Waterloo-based company BlackBerry first introduced their smartphone to the market.

The BlackBerry 850 was released on Jan. 19, 1999 and was sold as a computer that could be held in the palm of your hand.

“This was a really big deal,” said tech expert Mark Saltzman. “The BlackBerry 850 was the first phone that you could read email on and reply to it. Otherwise you had to lug a very heavy laptop with you.”

As shown in the 2023 movie, the palm-sized product became a giant in the smartphone space as a first of its kind.

"It was at the forefront of Canadian innovation," said Kevin Tuer, the Chief Technology Officer for Communitech. "It just changed the way that everyone did business."

In 2011, around 85 million people were using a BlackBerry device.

"Waterloo and the region was being put on the map because of what was going on here," said Tuer. "It was just growing at a phenomenal pace."

Now 25 years later, BlackBerry's impact can still be felt, particularly in the local tech sector.

"That really became the catalyst for a lot of investment money," said Saltzman. "A lot of VC's swimming around the area looking to invest in startups from the university level, all the way up to lots of small and medium-sized businesses, to huge multi-billion dollar industries."

While BlackBerry's footprint has shrunk in size, with the company officially decommissioning its phone service in 2022, its legacy will always be attached to Waterloo Region.

"Eventually somebody was going to create it and invent it, but the first time is the hardest," said Tuer. "The fact that it did come out of Waterloo and it did come out of Research in Motion is remarkable. They did invent the smartphone as far as I'm concerned."

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