Meanwhile, it turned out consumers didn’t care so much about battery life or security features. They wanted apps. Apple’s iOs and Google’s Android systems were relatively easy for outside software developers to use, compared to BlackBerry’s technically complicated Java-based system.
Blackberry’s apps looked “uglier” than those programmed in more modern languages, and the simulator used to test the apps often didn’t recreate the actual experience, said Trevor Nimegeers, a Calgary-based entrepreneur whose software company, Wmode, has developed apps for BlackBerry. Further, RIM exerted tight control over developers before it would sign off on their apps for use on BlackBerrys, stifling creativity. “Developers wanted to be embraced, not controlled,” Mr. Nimegeers said. As a result, hot apps such as Instagram and Tumblr bypassed BlackBerry.
A split company
One key to RIM’s early success was its corporate structure. It is unusual for a company to have two CEOs – Mr. Lazaridis focused on engineering, product management and supply chain, while Mr. Balsillie looked after sales, finance and other corporate functions – but for a long time, it worked. Mr. Lazaridis’s side of the shop made the phones, and Mr. Balsillie’s sold them. The two men were collegial and collaborative.
Below the top executives, however, the two sides of the company didn’t always get along. And as the company grew into a leviathan with $20-billion in annual sales, the structure sometimes made it difficult to get definitive decisions or establish clear accountability. That contributed to a chronic problem for RIM: speed. “They were always slow to market, and there were always delays in launching,” said James Moorman, an analyst with S&P Capital IQ Equity Research. “It was compounded by miscalculating the speed at which the consumer market changed.”
Sometimes, feedback from customers that might inspire changes would die at middle management, because senior executives didn’t want to bring it to Mr. Lazaridis, a former insider said.
The split company also lost a major unifying force when chief operating officer Larry Conlee retired in 2009. Mr. Conlee was a whip-cracker who held executives to account for decisions and deadlines, establishing a project management office. Many insiders agreed that after he left, a slack attitude toward hitting targets began to permeate the company. “There was a gap” after Mr. Conlee’s departure, Adam Belsher, a former RIM vice-president, told The Globe last year. “There was no real operational executive on the product side that would really get teams to hit deadlines.”
After relying on its own technology for so long, Mr. Lazaridis decided the company’s next advance would come from outside. In April, 2010, RIM announced a deal to acquire Ottawa-based QNX Software, a cutting-edge software maker that would provide the building blocks for the BlackBerry 10 operating system – the new platform Mr. Lazaridis knew the company needed.
QNX was a specialist in industrial controls that used up-to-date software tools to run applications ranging from 911 call centres to wireless broadband services in vehicles. Its technology was the perfect core for smartphones and tablets, RIM’s leaders felt.
Mr. Lazaridis decided to take a page from the business strategy book The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. The book outlines how established organizations that succeeded against challengers often did so by allowing small, cloistered teams to develop their own disruptive products, free from the influence of the rest of the organization.
Mr. Lazaridis decided he would isolate the QNX team and get them to focus solely on the new operating system, while leaving existing programmers to work on products for its existing platform, BlackBerry 7. Eventually he hoped QNX, led by its CEO Dan Dodge, would retrain his entire organization.
But first, RIM had to answer a key question: If it wanted to remake the BlackBerry on the QNX system, what was the best way to do that? Should it move over some of its old Java-based applications, or rewrite them all from scratch? If the company abandoned Java altogether, what would it mean for third-party developers who used it?
These were not easy decisions. Discussions among the senior leaders in Mr. Lazaridis’ organization dragged on for a year – far too long, according to several insiders.
Eventually, the decision was made: BlackBerry 10 would be built from scratch. The problem with that approach was that a new team was being entrusted to recreate the BlackBerry. Those who had created the original system were still working on devices for the BlackBerry 7 platform. Once again, the company was split.
“We had bought a powerful operating system and needed to move to it. But the BB7 was late,” Mr. Lazaridis said. “Every week, I was getting requests for more hires, more resources. The conundrum was, how do I pull resources off the BB7 to rewrite all the apps on top of QNX?”