“Buying QNX was the right play ultimately,” said Mr. Spence. “But we didn’t make the turn fast enough. Everyone underestimated the complexity” involved in building the new system.
A BBM plan
For 20 years, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis operated in tandem, building an increasingly successful partnership that allowed each other’s strengths to flourish.
They shared an office in their early years, even possessing each other’s voice mail passwords.
As RIM grew, they worked in separate buildings but spoke several times a day. “They had a relationship I wish I had with my wife,” one mid-level executive said.
But they had different personalities and their lives seldom intersected outside the office. They have barely spoken since leaving the company.
For Mr. Lazaridis, science was both a job and a pastime. Mr. Balsillie was brash, competitive and athletic, and wore his reputation for being aggressive, even bullying in meetings, as a badge of honour. If anything, he viewed that outward toughness as a job requirement, not unlike tech CEOs such as Steve Ballmer at Microsoft Corp. or Apple’s Steve Jobs. “Show me how else you build a $20-billion company,” he once confided to a colleague. “If I was Mr. Easy-going, they would kill BlackBerry.”
The two rarely disagreed on key strategic moves – until their last year together. Mr. Lazaridis believed BlackBerry 10 would herald RIM’s renaissance. Mr. Balsillie wasn’t so sure.
Mr. Balsillie was concerned that Google had commoditized the smartphone market by making its Android operating system available for free to any handset maker. By 2011, wireless carriers were warning him that they would be ordering fewer BlackBerry products unless he dropped his prices to match rival manufacturers.
So Mr. Balsillie pushed an alternative plan.
The idea started with Aaron Brown, the executive who oversaw the services division at RIM. By 2010, this division was earning $800-million per quarter in revenue from the monthly service access fee it charged mobile carriers for every BlackBerry subscriber. More than 90 per cent of that was profit. Carriers tried to chip away at those fees – Google and Apple didn’t charge them – but RIM always pushed back. Mr. Balsillie was particularly insistent on keeping the service fees. But the executives knew the company’s weakening position in devices would increase pressure on services revenues as well.
Even after its terrible year in 2011, RIM still had several advantages, including close relationships with the world’s major carriers. It also had BlackBerry Messenger.
RIM developers created the BBM app in 2005 to enable users to communicate not by e-mail but by using their devices’ “personal identification numbers” or PINs. It was the first instant messaging service built for wireless devices, and it caught on quickly. It was reliable, free, always on and users could send as many messages as they wanted at no extra cost, unlike basic text messages. PINs were random codes, not phone numbers or e-mail addresses, enhancing privacy. That made BBM extremely popular in countries where citizens didn’t enjoy as many freedoms as Western democracies, and helped drive handset sales there.
BBM’s developers added a few clever elements that also made it addictive. For example, users would know when a message had been delivered and when it had been read, marked D and R. Today there are 60 million monthly active users.
But BBM only worked on BlackBerrys. As Apple and Android took off, BBM knock-offs appeared that could function on those devices, including Kik Interactive Inc., founded by Ted Livingston, a former RIM co-op student. Today Kik, boasts 85 million users, more than BlackBerry (which sued Mr. Livingston for allegedly copying its program). Others, such as WhatsApp, are even larger. Instant messaging “is the killer app of the mobile era,” Mr. Livingston said. “We think there will be a Google or Facebook-sized company that comes out of this category.”
RIM’s Mr. Brown believed he could tap into this unfolding trend. While working with Mr. Balsillie on other projects, around late 2010 and early 2011, he began to talk up the concept of offering BBM on other mobile platforms.
Mr. Balsillie loved it. At the time, some carriers were pushing for rebates on their monthly service fees. Mr. Brown was willing to comply if the carriers would agree to open new parts of their business to RIM. He and Mr. Balsillie struck upon an idea: Why not give carriers the opportunity to offer BBM to all their customers – no matter what devices they used?
Most wireless executives were not fans of instant messaging services and other “over-the-top” apps such as Skype because they eroded the carriers’ revenue from text messaging.
To counter that threat, carriers banded together to develop a standardized “rich communication service” (RCS) platform that would enable their customers to exchange text messages, videos, games and other digital information. But the initiative has gained little traction; one commentator recently labelled RCS a “zombie technology.”