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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 ...

PlayBook pain

The QNX team’s first assignment was to work on an operating system for the PlayBook, RIM’s answer to Apple’s successful iPad tablet. Mr. Lazaridis saw the work as a precursor to the BlackBerry 10 line of smartphones and was impressed by what the team brought to the product. “It helped our developers experience the power and elegance of QNX,” he said.

But the QNX team was overwhelmed and needed to draw heavily on the company’s other resources to complete the PlayBook. Similar issues arose later on the BlackBerry 10. The tablet, originally slated to come out in the fall of 2010, didn’t appear until April, 2011, and it failed to sell. It was an awkward accessory to RIM’s smartphones, and lacked e-mail, contacts and apps. Once again, RIM had missed the mark: Tablets that sold well worked as standalone devices, which the PlayBook wasn’t.

Some questioned the wisdom of launching the PlayBook in the first place, feeling it was a needless and costly distraction. And the decision to isolate QNX also created tensions and morale problems: Those who weren’t on the team worried about their future.

“To me, the most logical thing would have been to integrate the operating system organizations into one,” said one senior executive who was caught up in the fray. “Then you’d have a whole team, not 150 people sitting around saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do next,’ and another 150 people saying ‘I’m over my head.’ ”

Meanwhile, RIM’s lack of an advanced smartphone meant that it continued to bleed market share to Apple and Android, especially in the United States. In December, 2010, Verizon Wireless announced it would invest in fourth generation (4G) LTE technology to accommodate the growing demands of customers who wanted to surf the Internet on their phones. It signalled to device makers that it would look to feature 4G smartphones in its marketing.

RIM’s 4G phone effort was the BlackBerry 10, but it was far from ready. RIM executives tried to make an engineering argument to carriers that 4G technology was no more efficient than 3G, and that its Bold phones were just fine. Mr. Lazaridis, Mr. Heins and chief technology officer David Yach “were trying to reshape the argument because they knew our products couldn’t go there,” a former executive said. “It was a fight to stay in [promotional] programs with carriers. We lost channel support and feature ads.”

The PlayBook debacle and mounting delays of the BlackBerry 10 harmed the organization in other ways.

For years, Mr. Yach and Mr. Lazaridis had enjoyed a close working relationship. But as the well-regarded Mr. Yach began to question the company’s ability to hit deadlines on products, his views were dismissed and he was made to feel he wasn’t a team player, damaging their relationship, observers said. He left the company in early 2012.

The PlayBook flop merely added to the sense of a company in decline; 2011 became a significant turning point for RIM. As it became clear the brand was getting trounced in the market, and the BlackBerry 10 project was hit by significant delays, the stock plunged, falling from $69 (Canadian) in February to less than $15 by the year’s end.

The pressure mounted on Mr. Balsillie, Mr. Lazaridis and the board. In January, 2012, they stepped aside as co-CEOs and handed it over to Thorsten Heins, a German executive who had run the company’s handset division.

Almost immediately, there was division about how to roll out the BlackBerry 10. The original strategy had called for the company to launch an all-touchscreen version first, because sales were still going well for the company’s BlackBerry 7 keyboard phone.

But by 2012, sales of BlackBerry 7 phones had lost steam, and Mr. Lazaridis, now deputy chairman, felt the company should switch its priority to getting a keyboard version out, to meet the demand from BlackBerry die-hards.

“This is our bread and butter, our iconic device,” he told an executive at the company. “The keyboard is one of the reasons they buy BlackBerrys.”

Mr. Heins’s new management team held firm, sources close to the board said. “They believed everything was going to full touch” and that the QNX-designed system was clearly superior to what was available on other mobile operating systems.

To Mr. Lazaridis, abandoning the company’s competitive advantage in the hopes consumers would embrace yet another touchscreen was too risky a strategy, setting up the showdown at the board last year. In the end, management agreed to continue developing the Q10 keyboard phone. But the all-touchscreen Z10 would be launched first.

By the time the first BlackBerry 10 smartphones were unveiled in January of this year, market observers generally agreed that the products were two years too late – a view widely shared among many senior RIM insiders.

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