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The Blackberry PlayBook, photographed at Research In Motion's headquarters in Waterloo, Ont. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The Blackberry PlayBook, photographed at Research In Motion's headquarters in Waterloo, Ont. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

RIM makes a play for its future Add to ...

Mike Lazaridis, the brain behind the BlackBerry, is staring intently out a window inside RIM 10, a squat, unprepossessing structure on Research In Motion Ltd. 's main campus. Beneath the grey, windswept sky, he sees an empire that he helped create.

The five-kilometre radius around RIM Ten is home to one of the greatest single concentrations of talent in math, engineering and science anywhere in North America. RIM occupies nearly 20 buildings in the immediate vicinity, and a large proportion of its 18,000 employees work here. But they are only part of the picture, and at the moment, Mr. Lazaridis has his eyes trained on something else. In the distance, he points out the Institute for Quantum Computing, at his alma mater, the University of Waterloo. Not far away from that is the Perimeter Institute, a world-class research centre for theoretical physics. Both were built with a portion of the billions RIM's co-chief executive officer amassed from making the most efficient and secure mobile communications devices in the world.

Mr. Lazaridis is proud of his role in turning this - RIM, the city of Waterloo, the university, the institutes - into a hotbed of innovation. But he is bothered, too, because he believes people don't understand how much all of this is really worth.

"Maybe we're just not good at promoting ourselves. Maybe that's the Canadian way," he says. He wonders out loud whether he and RIM's other CEO, Jim Balsillie, should have just taken their show to Silicon Valley. Maybe then they would get the recognition they deserve. "You know, maybe we should have left Canada a long time ago, rather than staying loyal patriots for the country. Jim and I have invested a whole bunch in this country and the community. But our records speak for themselves. Yeah, we've have some hard times, but gosh, look at the success."

It is the refrain of a frustrated man - frustrated by a problem he can't easily solve because it's not a math or engineering question. It is a problem of perception. Less than four years after it briefly became Canada's most valuable corporation, RIM is being challenged to show it hasn't lost its edge.

One Wall Street analyst calls the BlackBerry "a broken brand," left in the dust by the design wizards at Apple Inc. and losing market share to hungry foreign competitors - and many investors buy this gloomy line of thinking. RIM's stock, which is down by two-thirds since mid-2008, is priced as though they believe the company's profits are about to decline - even though RIM has posted a series of record quarters, is adding millions of new users, and is prospering in fast-growing overseas markets.

So Mr. Lazaridis and Mr. Balsillie, after guiding their company through a decade of mind-blowing growth, are caught in a major fight. And in his hands, the 50-year-old co-CEO is holding RIM's latest weapon, a rectangular slab of glass, plastic and metal that weighs less than a pound.

In the span of just one year, RIM conceived and built the PlayBook tablet, which goes on sale next Tuesday. But unlike smart phones - a category RIM basically invented, and over which it enjoyed a near-monopoly for years - this time the company is following, not leading.

Apple has a one-year head start and its iPad dominates the fast-growing tablet market, and for all of RIM's past success, almost no one gives it a chance of catching up. When Gartner Inc., an IT consulting firm, released a new forecast on the topic last week, it projected that 85 per cent of tablets will run on systems designed by Apple or Google by 2015. RIM will be running a distant third, it said.

This is one of the most important moments in the history of Canada's most important technology company - not because RIM needs to sell millions of PlayBooks or beat the iPad to survive (it doesn't), but because it must prove that it has a second act.

A lot more is riding on the PlayBook's success or failure than the trajectory of a single company. Since the slow death of Nortel Networks, RIM has moved to the centre of the Canadian technology sector. It spawns new startups or acquires them, spends a healthy proportion of its $1.3-billion research and development budget in Canada and is the largest employer of co-op students in the country. No other Canadian-controlled business offers as much opportunity for bright Canadian engineers and mathematicians to find meaningful work at home.

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