- Losing the Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry
- Jacquie McNish,Sean Silcoff
The apparent mission of the tech industry over the past century has been to help us tell as many people as possible, as soon as possible, what we thought about that thing that just happened. From the radio watch on Dick Tracy's wrist to the Apple Watch on Beyoncé's, we've welcomed this swelling of noises, and the subsequent drowning of signals, because we are deeply, hopelessly social animals and connectivity is social capital condensed.This connectivity arms race had its tipping point in 1998, when a smallish company in Waterloo called Research In Motion introduced the first device capable of mobile access to e-mail: the BlackBerry. The days of clumsy pagers had come to an end. From then on, conversations would be wireless, mobile and constant – from the singular BlackBerry came a movable feast. And it's this historic tipping point – the BlackBerry moment – that is chronicled in Losing the Signal.
The book's authors, Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff (both reporters for The Globe and Mail), do not have a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates for their hero. Rather, engineer Mike Lazaridis and businessman Jim Balsillie are the frumpy co-CEOs at the heart of the BlackBerry tale. Lazaridis comes off as a talented tinkerer but constantly falls short of visionary. And Balsillie's mania for material success verges on greasy: he carries around a copy of The Art of War and, in one scene, makes a fake place-card in order to sit next to the right people at a gala. McNish and Silcoff position the two as determined entrepreneurs but nowhere near the magnetic personalities of Silicon Valley tales. (There is a reason neither man is mentioned in Walter Isaacson's new digital-revolution history, The Innovators.)
Whatever the nature of their thinking, the business acumen on display is formidable. BlackBerrys were geared toward a class of the bullish American executive who not only prided himself on being indispensable but who had a latent addiction for connection that no technology had yet triggered. The fantasy of every CEO, of course, is to be an octopus, reaching out in multiple directions at once. In 1998, BlackBerry was the closest thing. But the executive functionality of BlackBerry was really a gateway drug for society; from our tween years up, we are all octopuses now.
Losing the Signal is not, though, a cultural analysis of BlackBerry's effect on the ways we think or behave; it delivers instead a (nearly too) thorough account of the business manoeuvres that allowed Lazaridis and Balsillie to capitalize on that need for connection – we get step-by-step analysis of the rocket-swift rise to market dominance in a single decade (their market cap was more than $80-billion at its 2008 peak). But, in a telling passage, Balsillie appears just as susceptible as his customers to the "crackberry" he created: "In meetings they would often only see the top of Balsillie's forehead. RIM's hypercompetitive co-CEO had become one of the world's first mobile e-mail addicts, conducting meetings while scanning his [device] for the latest from sales staff, customers, and investors." This is important because, throughout Losing the Signal, one has a sense the RIM CEOs are more than a little clueless – they almost come off as accidental billionaires, not so much guiding the digital revolution as along for the dot-com ride.
They certainly did not see the long game: After a brief heyday of market dominance, BlackBerry was blindsided by more savvy competitors from California; first the iPhone in 2007 and then Google's Android. BlackBerry failed to understand the importance of apps, of touch screens, of 4G networks, of slick aesthetics. And, beyond these fumbles, they lacked that ineffable likability that Silicon Valley uses to inspire loyalty from both employees and consumers. The difference is nearly pathetic: Apple and Google folk were literally playing beach volleyball at work while BlackBerry's team hunkered in grey cubicles. Meanwhile, as McNish and Silcoff note, "Neither Balsillie nor Lazaridis were big believers in praising or rewarding RIM's hardworking employees." By 2013 – while the world welcomed wearable tech, 3-D printing, and startling new voice-recognition programs – BlackBerry's CEOs hung up. It would be left to others to guide their company's slow collapse. (As I write this review, for example, the current chief executive, John Chen, announced more layoffs.)
There is a studious level of reporting at work in Losing the Signal. But McNish and Silcoff seem uninterested in placing the BlackBerry story within a larger history of technology. It is a workmanlike book and anyone fascinated by the smartphone's evolution will be very pleased. But most of us want a broader story; we want some analysis. How did these men (perhaps unwittingly) change the way we work, the way we think, the way we see ourselves? McNish and Silcoff have done some exemplary reporting but they do not turn their investigative skills toward those larger questions.
Michael Harris won the Governor General's Award for The End of Absence.