Connecting the planet

BlackBerry: The Inside Story of Research in Motion

By Rod McQueen. Hachette. Pages 320. Rs 495.

Reviewed by Roopinder Singh

BlackBerry: The Inside Story of Research in Motion

THE meaning of a word should be understood by the way in which it is used within its social context, said the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. When we speak of BlackBerry these days, we have not ‘Arundhatised’ the world with an unconventional capitalisation, but changed its meaning from that of a berry to an object that is the centre of a cult, in fact, the one that has become one of the defining symbols of business in action.

Research In Motion, the company that makes BlackBerry devices, calling them phones is too prosaic, is the best known and arguably the richest Canadian company, a trans-continental empire. It models, like Pearl, are considered to be the top mobile e-mail devices.

Talk about celebrity endorsement, President Barack Obama used his BlackBerry device for communication during his 2008 presidential campaign and became the first President of the United States to use mobile e-mail despite security issues. Marketing evaluators place this endorsement’s value between $25-50 million.

What is it that makes BlackBerry special? Rod McQueen had unfettered access to the people and facilities of BlackBerry and he spent four years meeting people. He gives us many answers in the book that proceeds in a fairly linear fashion as it describes how Mike Lazaridis family had to move out of Istanbul. The Greek family migrated to Canada. The author traces the school and college teachers, and fellow students of the founder and co-chief executive, of the company, and gives us their reminiscences as well as glimpses of the genius in the making. The University of Waterloo, Canada, became the incubator for many of his ideas and innovations. It was also an early proving ground and confidence builder for Lazaridis.

Right from the beginning, you get a feel of how the participants have collaborated with the author to narrate various episodes in their lives that have made the book readable. Research in Motion was incorporated on March 7, 1984. Over the next eight years, Lazarides hand-picked software specialists and the company worked on contracts for others, picking valuable experience and expertise.

Behind any successful entrepreneur is his finance person. Jim Balsillie, a graduate of Harvard Business School, did the financial engineering required to take the company forward after he joined in 1992 as vice-president of finance and business development.

BlackBerry’s ubiquitousness and reliability get another dimension as you explore the effort of the people who are truly gifted, daring and ambitious-the founder and his team. How did the BlackBerry name come about? A brand consultant came up with the idea, and the second B was capitalisation for symmetry! Not the most convincing of reasons, but it clicked. And so did the device.

Leapfrog, a wireless e-mail device was launched in 1998. It was launched as BlackBerry and since it was optimised for e-mail, it became a gadget that every corporate executive wanted desperately. That set the trend, and what fed it were good word-of-mouth endorsements from users, advertising, good service and innovative ideas.

The focus on the consumer is evident as we read about how the BlackBerry range has sold 7.5 crore devices used in more than 170 countries. However, along the way, there were problems, financial vicissitudes, a patent battle which is given in detail and accounting issues with the Canadian securities regulators. Both times the firm paid major sums of money to settle the issues.

Unprecedented access has given the author a remarkable insight into the people that have shaped the life at RIM and this is a fascinating read. A person with a right idea who knows that he alone can’t deliver it is very rare and Lazarides is a truly remarkable man who has turned his vision into a remarkable reality. How he and his co-CEO, Jim Balsillie, work together is truly a partnership to be cherished, as is the company’s democratic culture where much effort is made to listen to employees’ voices. Giving back to society is important and led by the twin CEOs, many company employees have funded meaningful projects around the city of Waterloo which continues to be the headquarters and the main recruiting ground for RIM.

As BlackBerry faces challenges from such powerful rivals as iPhone, and other smart phones powered with Google Android or Windows mobile operating systems, the company will need to continue to sharpen its innovative edge and deliver the best to users who increasingly expect multimedia experience from their BlackBerry devices.

Technological battle lines are drawn afresh ever so often and the army of techies at Waterloo prepares to win the battle, no matter who leads the charge of the Charge of the Light Brigade. But then, they have the advantage of having not one but two generals.

This review was printed in The Tribune on Sunday, July 18,2010

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