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Former BlackBerry co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, and current CEO Thorsten Heins in a photo collage. (Globe and Mail photo illustration)

Former BlackBerry co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, and current CEO Thorsten Heins in a photo collage.

(Globe and Mail photo illustration)

Inside the fall of BlackBerry: How the smartphone inventor failed to adapt Add to ...

It was a novel plan. If RIM could get BBM onto hundreds of millions of non-BlackBerry phones, and charge fees for it, the company would have an enormous new source of profit, Mr. Balsillie believed. “It was a really big idea,” said an employee who was involved in the project.

But the plan ran into stiff opposition at senior levels. Not long after Mr. Heins took over as RIM’s CEO in January, 2012, he killed it, with Mr. Lazaridis’s support.

That was it for Mr. Balsillie. Weeks later, he resigned from the board and cut his ties to the company.

“My reason for leaving the RIM board in March, 2012, was due to the company’s decision to cancel the BBM cross-platform strategy,” Mr. Balsillie said in a brief statement to The Globe and Mail, his first public comments on his departure. He declined a request for an interview.

Mr. Lazaridis, who declined to speak about board matters, resigned as a director this past March after delaying his retirement by a year at the board's request.

Now, BlackBerry’s future is in doubt. This week, Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd., a Toronto-based investment company, announced a plan to lead a $4.7-billion takeover of the company. The offer is conditional, and requires a group of so-far uncommitted institutional investors to back Fairfax and provide financing.

The company’s near-collapse is a painful situation for Mr. Lazaridis, a gifted engineer who co-founded RIM in a tiny Waterloo office above a bagel shop in 1984.

“It’s really hurting me,” he said in an interview. “I can’t imagine what the employees must be thinking. Everyone is talking about the most likely scenario being that it will be broken up and sold off for parts. What will happen to the Waterloo region, or Canada? What company will take its place?”

Competition rising

Mike Lazaridis was at home on his treadmill and watching television when he first saw the Apple iPhone in early 2007. There were a few things he didn’t understand about the product. So, that summer, he pried one open to look inside and was shocked. It was like Apple had stuffed a Mac computer into a cellphone, he thought.

To Mr. Lazaridis, a life-long tinkerer who had built an oscilloscope and computer while in high school, the iPhone was a device that broke all the rules. The operating system alone took up 700 megabytes of memory, and the device used two processors. The entire BlackBerry ran on one processor and used 32 MB. Unlike the BlackBerry, the iPhone had a fully Internet-capable browser. That meant it would strain the networks of wireless companies like AT&T Inc., something those carriers hadn’t previously allowed. RIM by contrast used a rudimentary browser that limited data usage.

“I said, ‘How did they get AT&T to allow [that]?’ Mr. Lazaridis recalled in the interview at his Waterloo office. “ ‘It’s going to collapse the network.’ And in fact, some time later it did.”

Publicly, Mr. Lazaridis and Mr. Balsillie belittled the iPhone and its shortcomings, including its short battery life, weaker security and initial lack of e-mail. That earned them a reputation for being cocky and, eventually, out of touch. “That’s marketing,” Mr. Lazaridis explained. “You position your strengths against their weaknesses.”

Internally, he had a very different message. “If that thing catches on, we’re competing with a Mac, not a Nokia,” he recalled telling his staff.

RIM soon earned a chance to show up its new rival. RIM’s early smartphones had been a hit for Verizon Wireless, one of the biggest U.S. wireless players. Frozen out of the iPhone – Apple had signed an exclusive deal with AT&T – Verizon executives approached RIM in June, 2007, and asked if it could develop “an iPhone killer.” The product would need to have a touchscreen with no physical keyboard. Verizon would back the U.S. launch with a massive marketing campaign.

RIM executives jumped at the chance. At one management meeting, Mr. Balsillie called it RIM’s most important strategic opportunity since the launch of its two-way e-mail pager.

The product was the BlackBerry Storm. It was the most complex and ambitious project the company had ever done, but “the technology was cobbled together quickly and wasn’t quite ready,” said one former senior company insider who was involved in the project.

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