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  (Curtis Lantinga)


(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Twilight of the smartphone gods Add to ...

Back in 2007, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie were like gods. Everyone agreed the Research in Motion CEOs were the two smartest guys in Canada, and possibly the entire world. Anyone who was a someone owned a BlackBerry. A BlackBerry meant you were a player. Even Barack Obama had one! But even if you didn’t, you cheered for RIM because finally we could forget the hideous national embarrassment of Nortel and hold our heads up in the world. Thanks to them, our whole country was a player!

When Roman emperors paraded through the streets in triumph, they used to hire a slave to whisper in their ear, “Remember, you are just a man.” Maybe Mike and Jim should’ve tried that.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in 2007, Mike Lazaridis trashed it. He told his employees nobody wanted to have a personal computer on their phone. Back then, RIM commanded nearly half the U.S. smartphone market. Today, it has more like 10 per cent. Not only do people like to have computers on their phones, they also like to waste millions of hours playing Angry Birds. Who knew?

The worse things got, the more arrogant they became. Last spring Mr. Lazaridis walked out of a BBC interview because he didn’t like the question. “You implied that we have a security problem; we don’t have a security problem,” he said. “We’ve just been singled out because we’re so successful around the world. It’s an iconic product, used by business – it’s used by leaders, it’s used by celebrities, it’s used by consumers, it’s used by teenagers – we were just singled out.”

Then there was all that money. Funny things happen to people who get stupendously rich. Instead of dreaming night and day about the next great product, they start to dream about building the most spectacular mansion in the entire country, or buying a National Hockey League team. Mr. Lazaridis’s construction project (a 24,000-square-foot “cottage” on the shores of Lake Huron) has been going on for years. Mr. Balsillie spent three years haggling for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Nashville Predators and the Phoenix Coyotes.

Meanwhile, Mr. Jobs was dreaming up hit products that people would line up overnight to buy. As Toronto money manager Tom Caldwell said, “Once the CEO is building the maxi-yacht or the great mansion or trying to buy hockey teams, he is not paying attention to his business, in my mind.”

Mr. Jobs despised tech billionaires who acquired mansions and fancy toys. “I’m not going to let money ruin my life,” he told his biographer. He had no taste for “that nutso lavish lifestyle that so many people do when they get rich.” The trouble is that people who get rich get fat and soft. They’re not hungry any more.

Mr. Jobs knew that if you stop swimming fast enough, you die. He was a screaming perfectionist who cursed out his staff when they moved too slowly, or when some product detail wasn’t good enough. Meanwhile, last year, when RIM released the PlayBook, which was supposed to compete with Apple’s iPad, it was a miserable flop: It couldn’t do e-mail. It had no Skype, no GPS, no Angry Birds. As a New York Times tech reviewer wrote incredulously, “There’s no app for that.” It wouldn’t even fit into the breast pocket of a jacket.

For years, we basked in RIM’s reflected glory. We celebrated the founders as geniuses and nation builders because they proved that Canada could lead the world in the world’s hottest field. But the RIM guys clung to power far too long. Guys like that always do.

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