The smart­phone maker lost to the mar­ket. There was and is no role for gov­ern­ment pol­icy

National Post (Latest Edition) - Financial Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Terence Cor­co­ran

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.


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