In March, 2011, Research In Motion Ltd.’s then-co-CEO Jim Balsillie was asked on a conference call about the launch of some powerful new BlackBerrys.
Analysts, worried that promoting the mysterious, supposedly game-changing devices too early might hurt sales of existing BlackBerrys, asked when the new phones would launch.
“Early calendar ‘12,” Mr. Balsillie replied.
But that launch target turned out to be far too ambitious for RIM.
In December, 2011, Mr. Balsillie and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis announced a deflating delay of the crucial new phones until “late 2012.” About a month later, both stepped down as co-CEOs.
The delays, however, were not yet over. In June of last year, RIM’s new CEO, Thorsten Heins, implemented a delay of his own, saying the phones were not yet perfect – and would now come out sometime in early 2013.
At long last, RIM has set this Wednesday as the global launch of its BlackBerry 10 smartphones.
So what exactly took so long?
The short answer is that RIM was not simply building a new phone.
Canada’s signature technology company was trying to build an entirely new mobile operating system from scratch, a complex task that meant RIM would be breaking from its long history of simply adding frills, functionality and new features to the same old software.
Like an overloaded mule, the software running on BlackBerrys was gradually asked to do more and more until it became unstable.
Straying beyond basic messaging functions, to apps or games, could stall the device, and users were frequently forced to stare in frustration at the “loading” symbol, reboot or take out the battery.
The process was made more complex by several other factors, including RIM’s increasingly dysfunctional management structure and a worsening financial situation. There was also an overriding sense that whatever BlackBerry 10 was, it was likely RIM’s last chance.
“The last thing they could do is build on the previous BlackBerry, because they were making a complete break,” says a former senior RIM executive. “And the reason they were making a complete break was to address all of the concerns expressed by everybody, which was the antiquity of the previous platform.”
Most large smartphone makers now, with the exception of Apple and RIM, make only the hardware: Samsung Electronics Co. and HTC Corp., for example, largely deploy Google Inc.’s Android mobile software on their top-end smartphones. Nokia Corp., once the dominant supplier of simple cellphones, has largely abandoned its own Symbian software after its Canadian CEO Stephen Elop struck a deal to have Nokia’s signature smartphones run Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Phone operating system.
RIM management, which decided not to adopt Android because controlling both hardware and software allowed the company to differentiate itself, decided to cobble together the new software from a series of acquisitions. QNX Software Systems, acquired by RIM in April 2010, provided the core operating system; Swiftkey provided the new touch keyboard; The Astonishing Tribe provided the user interface; Tungle provided the calendar; and so on.
“I always use car analogies,” says another former RIM executive. “This is asking the engineers to go back and redesign the chassis and then building everything on top of that, from scratch. It’s not like putting a new coat of paint on.”
But all of this new functionality could not simply be grafted onto RIM’s older software, developed using the Java programming language. It would have to be layered on top of QNX. And it would have to be perfect, if RIM wanted to survive. This only heightened the tension at a company that was reeling amid huge market-share losses.
And even though the whole company was ostensibly united behind the effort to push out BlackBerry 10, there were divisions. In particular, QNX, which has continued to operate under its independent branding despite being part of RIM, was viewed antagonistically by some within RIM – especially as layoffs hit those whose livelihoods were linked to RIM’s older Java software, which was essentially being phased out.
QNX, headquartered in Ottawa, at times seems like a totally different company, focused more on outfitting Bentleys and other high-end cars with computer screens – a bet on the machine-to-machine technology of the future, rather than the smartphone wars of RIM’s present.
RIM, because of a co-CEO structure divided between technical genius Mr. Lazardis and Mr. Balsillie, who oversaw sales and marketing, essentially functioned as two separate companies in the early days of BlackBerry 10. Numerous interviews with former employees and third-party developers who dealt with RIM described a dysfunctional structure that Mr. Heins, taking the reins in January, 2012, did his best to get under control.
“The minute the management structure settled and the minute they eliminated any debate about who was on first, they could just lock and commit,” the former senior RIM executive said. “So although there was a lot of work going on on BlackBerry 10 prior to Thorsten taking the lead, from January, 2012, right through to present times, it moved from being priority No. 1 to being the only thing anyone did.”