The Frenemies Who Killed Blackberry
Jim Balsille and Mike Lazaridis were on top of the world. They had created the all-conquering ‘Crackberry.’ Then their friendship died with the brand.
The relationship after their split is on the same frost-scale as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.
The two men who begot Blackberry on the world, changing the very way we work and play—only to lost it all just as quickly as they cinched it—have only spoken once since they were eased out of their company.
The one conversation between Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis took place in 2012, in Toronto, at the Fairmont Royal York, for a gala celebrating Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
“After exchanging pleasantries, the two men moved on,” write Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff towards the end of an unflinching new bio/autopsy called Losing The Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry.
The destruction of their twenty-year partnership, as the book tracks only too well, is just some of the carnage left by a company that was once a techno-dervish, and is now a cautionary tale.
Blackberry saw its share of the U.S. phone market plunge from 50 percent in 2009 to less than one measly percent at 2014’s end.
And while there’s enough here that clicks as business case study—Blackberry’s inability to ward off the thunderbolt of the iPhone, the string of missteps the company known as RIM accrued once consumer desire shifted away from a mere email device to a smartphone that was more like a mini-computer “loaded like a modern Swiss Army Knife”—much of it can be summed up a quote I’ve long favoured, courtesy of Sir Alec Guinness: “Failure has a thousand explanations. Success doesn’t need one.”
Unsurprisingly, in Canada, the book has also unleashed a fresh torrent of chin-wagging about the two men touted, at one point, as the Wayne Gretzkys of tech.
“RIM was like the hockey team that won six Stanley Cups. We were so proud of them.” This is what McNish says now about the particular Canadian-ness of this saga, musing on a brand so big in the mid-aughts that Sam Seaborn, on TV’s The West Wing, had nothing less of a conniption when he lost his “Crackberry,” and in the real White House to come, Barack Obama expressly refused a Secret Service missive to yield his, when elected.
Reading the blow-by-blow of recent history—but history nonetheless—I had flashes of Paris Hilton, who once seemed as immutable as Blackberry in the culture.
Reigning over a pre-Kardashian ethos, I remember seeing her at numerous parties at the time, including at one fete at the Sundance festival, where she seemed more interested in doing the “Blackberry prayer,” as being hunched over one’s Blackberry was then called, than actually engaging Paris + keyboard. However quaint does that image seem now?
Do remember that until Blackberry came along, thumb-typing—now so firmly-ingrained—was not really a thing. Neither was the now all-too-common tableau of people bent over their devices—in restaurants, buses, everywhere—wrapped in their own saran-wrapped enclosures, le tout alone together.
The pioneers at the heart of Losing the Signal reek of classic odd couple-ism. Where Basillie, a descendant of French Metis, was the natural-born schmoozer and businessman, Lazaridis, a Turkish-born Greek immigrant, was that classic nerd who remained a boy engineer at heart, and whose hobbies include collecting vintage editions of Scientific American.
And where some of the blame for Blackberry’s mojo-stoppage often goes to the firm’s unusual two-CEO managerial structure, it’s also equally true that it worked until…well…it didn’t.
Though they almost never socialized, at work they walked in lockstep during those years when Blackberries were spreading, wildfire-like, from Brazil to Burundi. “They had,” for instance, “secret signals, including an under-the-table nudge when a private chat was needed and crinkling of paper to indicate that it was time to stop talking.”
As the showboat in the pair, and the one who didn’t make a move without referring to his personal bible, Sun Tzu’s Art of War—something that comes up repeatedly in the book—it hardly surprises that Balsillie owns some of the more colourful yarns in the book.
Consider: while at Toronto’s clubby Trinity College—he was a classmate there of Mr. Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell—he showed a unique talent when asked to help organize formal affairs by sneaking into funeral homes to find “free, slightly used flowers to decorate the college dorms,” thereby stretching the student budget.
Move to 2003, where that famous chutzpah was deployed for more writ large aims: in France for a conference with Europe’s biggest mobile carrier CEOs, during which Balsillie wasn’t making sufficient headway with the powers-that-be, he slipped into a ballroom before a big planned dinner.
“Monsieur, there’s supposed to be another setting here,” he told a waiter, pointing to a table, and channeling the authority of a conference organizer. The waiter returned minutes later with a chair, and setting, gingerly moving around things to accommodate.
Meanwhile, pulling out a business card from his pocket and folding it in two, Balsillie studied the calligraphy on the other cards, and concocted a passable forgery for his own.
Fast-forward to dinner, where ignorance proved ever blissful, and he nabbed the opportunity to pitch the honchos. Fast-forward a few months, when the plot proved to be even more than useful: with talks well underway with European’s biggest mobile players, Mr. Blackberry had finagled his entrée.
With great bravado can also come great doubt, as Balsillie exemplified,when a dark depression gripped him in the midst of a big patent sue against RIM—just one of many mounting problems—in 2005.
“You’re bawling your eyes out at night at hours. You can’t function,” he says. Retreating by himself to a hotel room, in Toronto, to reflect and deal with the crisis, he now admits, “I never thought of killing myself, but it didn’t seem like a bad idea.”
These days, the stakes ain’t what they used to be. Destined to “living separate lives”, so to speak, Balsille and Lazaridis did unite, at least between covers, having given hours of interviews (separately) to the authors of this new tell-all. How do they—both 54 now—spend their days, otherwise? Neither of them lack for money, that’s for sure.
Lazaridis, tapping into his inner “Trekkie,” has invested much of his personal fortune into a venture fund and two science institutes devoted to the untapped power of quantum physics. Presto: a new 285,0000-square foot building called the Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre.
Named after himself and his wife, and housed in Waterloo, Ontario—the town that Blackberry turned into a tech hub—it brought out a host of A-geeks, including Stephen Hawking, to its opening.
Meanwhile, Balsillie’s interests are more polymorphous: he’s started a think tank of his own called the Institute for New Economic Thinking (co-founded with George Soros), tinkers with a novel he’s writing, and slithered into the limelight, briefly, last year, as one of the voyagers of a successful quest in the Arctic to locate one of the sunken ships lost during a doomed expedition by Sir John Franklin when travelling the Northwest Passage in the 1840s.
Pursuant to the dilettante playbook, the erstwhile Blackberry titan has also become something of an art collector. In addition to what’s said to be one of the world’s biggest portfolios of primitive masks—masks from the Pacific Islands, Africa, etc, made for history’s earliest warriors—he also purchased one of the original casts of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’. The huge bronze structure sits in the middle of his garden. What foresight Rodin had: you could call the figure’s pose a ‘Blackberry prayer.’