A BLACKBERRY LESSON
The smartphone maker lost to the market. There was and is no role for government policy
The smartphone maker lost to the market. There was and is no role for government policy.
AWhat really happened to BlackBerry was Steve Jobs and the Apple iPhone and iPad
s a rule, cold-hearted business books tend to lack emotional moments, but the new BlackBerry Ltd. bio-epic by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff has more than a few heartbreakers. One is found in the last words of the book, spoken by company co-founder Mike Lazaridis, whose deep belief in the differentiating and practical value of the BlackBerry keyboard is being shattered. In 2012, new management at the struggling company decided to launch an all-touch version of the iconic smartphone, a move Lazaridis took as a personal affront as well as a strategic blunder. “I don’t get this,” he said at a board meeting, pointing to a touch-screen phone. Several months later, after he had cut his ties with BlackBerry, Lazaridis drove to an electronics outlet in Waterloo, Ont., and cleaned out the store’s inventory of keyboard BlackBerrys. “The most frightening thought,” he said, “was that I wouldn’t have a BlackBerry.”
Losing the Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry is one of the most tightly edited business books in Canadian history, a no-nonsense Mickey Spillane retelling of the saga of two Canadians — Jim Balsillie and Lazaridis — who catapulted a Waterloo startup to almost the glorious top of the FP500, but which has since tragically declined to No. 116 in this year’s rankings.
The BlackBerry story is truly a tragedy, a personal and corporate drama filled with great achievement, hubris, blunders, dramatic plot turns and rich characters struggling against that most essential element in any great tragedy: fate. For all their genius and skill, Balsillie and Lazaridis could not foresee the slings and arrows of outrageous corporate fortune coming their way.
Much of the story has been told before — in BlackBerry Planet by Alastair Sweeny in 2009 and BlackBerry: The Inside Story of Research in Motion
by Rod McQueen in 2010 — but Losing the Signal takes readers up to the near-present and covers past events with fresh details and inside commentary, much apparently provided by Balsillie and Lazaridis themselves in what appear to be candid interviews beyond the call of executive duty.
The BlackBerry duo was portrayed by McQueen as near-invincible monarchs of the global smartphone industry, but they emerge in Losing the Signal as all too human, flawed in personality and judgment, yet deserving of our empathy. From the portrayal of Balsillie’s often shaky and erratic psychological state to Lazaridis’ sense of humiliation following the BlackBerry back-dating regulatory scandal, the book takes a step beyond rote business history. “You name all the great things that RIM was able to do, this [backdating] thing just sucked it all out. I mean, why bother building a great organization if this can happen to it?” Lazaridis said.
What really happened to BlackBerry, however, was Steve Jobs and the Apple iPhone and iPad, along with the ongoing competitive scramble among the world’s telecom carriers for new products and technologies. Balsillie and Lazaridis created a spectacularly innovative product that could not survive against other products that were even more spectacularly innovative.
McNish and Silcoff pack BlackBerry’s 25-year rollercoaster ride into 250 flab-free pages. Tempting analytical diversions into management theory, legal explications or musings on corporate governance are wisely avoided. Readers are left to reach their own conclusions, one of which is all too clear: There was and is no role for government policy. BlackBerry created itself and unravelled in a global corporate environment that is well beyond the policy wonkery of Canadian industrial or technology strategies. Could or should Ottawa have bailed out BlackBerry — or helped create new BlackBerrys? Such questions are clearly absurd in the context of the real BlackBerry story found in Losing the Signal.