A Fruit Gone Sour: The Demise of RIM and BlackBerry

Hey, remember BlackBerry?

In this day and age, it’s basically the smartphone equivalent of asking about digital watches or portable CD players. So it may be hard to remember that less than a decade ago, BlackBerry phones were at the technological forefront, a staple of the busy, the important, and the with-it. People joked about their BlackBerry addictions to the point where “CrackBerry” was Webster Dictionary’s 2006 Word of the Year. In 2009, Fortune magazine named RIM, the makers of BlackBerry, as the fastest growing company in the world.

Today, you may still know a BlackBerry user, but it’s probably that eccentric friend who won’t throw away their video cassettes in case the VCR makes a comeback.

Have you ever wondered what happened?

Probably not. But hey, now that I brought it up, aren’t you curious?

RIM’s 1999 BlackBerry was revolutionary. In a time when cellphones weren’t good for much beyond making calls, here was a palm-sized PDA that could send and receive e-mails from anywhere. The network was secure, the battery lasted forever, and the little QWERTY keyboard meant you could tap out a message with nearly the efficiency of typing on a computer.

For a while, everything was going right for RIM. What happened? In a word, people.

CEOs Mark Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie built a tech giant, but sadly they suffered from what is sometimes called “Founder’s syndrome.” Having scaled their way to the peak of the mountain, they failed to remember that landscapes change—especially in the fast-changing world of handheld electronics, where people on average replace their phones every two years.

On one hand, with hindsight on our side, it’s easy to condemn business leaders for failing to divine the future. On the other hand, RIM’s success caused Lazaridis and Balsillie to double down and stick their heads so far in the sand that their comments now make for surreal reading.

When PDAs in Asia began to offer color screens, Lazaridis insisted it was an impractical fad. “Do I need to read my e-mail in color?” he’s reported to have said.

“Cameraphones will be rejected by corporate users,” he stated in 2003.

In 2007, when Apple introduced a little gadget they were working on called an iPhone, Balsillie dismissed it as, “kind of one more entrant into an already very busy space with lots of choice for consumers … But in terms of a sort of a sea-change for BlackBerry, I would think that’s overstating it.”

Maybe in another company, someone might have stepped forward and delivered a wakeup call. But Lazaridis was notorious for only hiring people who thought like him. Lazaridis and Balsillie continued to insist their practical, workmanlike product had an impossible-to-beat foothold among businesspeople. How could a phone that wasted battery life on shiny new features elbow in on their territory? Who would tolerate the less user-friendly touchscreen keyboard of an iPhone?

“The most exciting mobile trend is full Qwerty keyboards,” Lazaridis said in 2008, of a feature they’d been offering for literally nine years. “I’m sorry, it really is. I’m not making this up.”

The public disagreed. The public disagreed pretty hard, as it turned out. That oh-so exciting keyboard feature became a shackle, cutting possible screen space in half and severely limiting what else the BlackBerry could offer. As more and more average consumers were enticed into the world of smartphones by the bells and whistles of the new generation, it altered the very definition of what a phone was supposed to be.

By the time even Lazaridis and Balsillie could no longer deny that change was needed, it was too late: they’d lost their edge, their voice of authority. When they finally started to offer their own touchscreens, it came with a feeling of sweaty desperation—and amazingly, their attempt at an iPad competitor didn’t even offer e-email.

At its peak, BlackBerry stock was worth $230 a share. These days, it hovers around $10. You would probably be better off using that money to buy actual blackberries, which are delicious, full of antioxidants, and much less vulnerable to corporate hubris.

Would YOU Work For Free?

Imagine a job where you have total freedom in how you spend your time—no meetings, no supervisors giving you pointless busywork, and no managers breathing down your neck. Imagine being totally free from company politics but having the ready respect and support of all your co-workers, and spending each and every work day devoting all your energy to a project you believe in so much, you’re willing and able to get every detail perfect.

In 1993, 27-year-old engineer Ron Avitzur found himself in just such a position. He was happily putting in long hours on developing a cutting-edge graphing software for Apple: a program that created beautiful 3D renderings of math equations. It was his dream project.

There was just one small problem: Avitzur wasn’t technically allowed in the building. The project had been canceled in August, and Avitzur had been let go.

But he wasn’t going to let such minor details as no longer being employed by Apple stop him. “I was frustrated by the wasted effort,” he writes on his website, “and so I decided to uncancel my part of the project.”

Avitzur enlisted the help of a friend and former co-worker, Greg Robbins, whose contract had also just ended. On one hand, they were both risking getting in a lot of trouble in order to work for free for a huge corporation. On the other hand, it really was a lovely piece of software.

Robbins told his manager that he would now be reporting to Avitzur. The manager bought it and he kept his security badge. Meanwhile, Avitzur told anyone who asked that he reported to Robbins. This was enough to let them generally go unquestioned: “I relied on the power of corporate apathy,” Avitzur writes.

“Since that left no managers in the loop, we had no meetings and could be extremely productive. We worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week. ”

One day, a confused facilities manager asked why Avitzur’s office wasn’t on her floor plan. Avitzur cheerfully explained his project had been canceled and he was no longer an employee. Furious, she canceled his badge, and banned him from the premises. From then on, every morning, Avitzur and Robbins would sneak into work behind other employees, and hide in abandoned offices.

To a building full of stressed out, bored engineers, frustrated by the endless red tape and canceled projects, Avitzur and Robbins became office folk heroes of a sort, and many people were willing to help them—off the record, of course.

One night, a stranger slipped into Avitzur’s “office” at 2 a.m. He was the man who made the master copy of the newest Apple computer prototype, and he was offering to add their program to the master copy—meaning they could sneak this secret program into widespread public circulation.

“Once we had a plausible way to ship, Apple became the ideal work environment. Every engineer we knew was willing to help us. We got resources that would never have been available to us had we been on the payroll…Engineers would come to our offices at midnight and practically slip machines under the door. One said, “Officially, this machine doesn’t exist, you didn’t get it from me, and I don’t know you. Make sure it doesn’t leave the building.””

In October, the software was nearly ready. Avitzur’s friends who were legitimately still working for Apple called in their managers for a mystery presentation. Avitzur gave the program a whirl.

The managers were thrilled. It was exactly the flashy new program Apple needed to show off what the new computer could do—they’d thrown all their resources into building a faster, more powerful machine, without providing any way to prove it.

Why, they asked, had nobody been informed about this incredible piece of software? “I explained that I had been sneaking into the building and that the project didn’t exist. They laughed, until they realized I was serious. Then they told me, “Don’t repeat this story.”

Luckily, the higher-ups in this project included the son of a math teacher who saw the educational value of the product, and Avitzur and Robbins were “adopted”. They still had to sneak into the building every morning—getting badges would’ve involved going through Legal, which didn’t seem promising—but everyone on the ground level pitched in to make the project a success. After months of hard work, long hours, and help from a huge number of people, Avitzur and Robbins had built a gorgeous, crash-proof piece of software for Apple—despite Apple.

“We wanted to release a Windows version as part of Windows 98,” writes Avitzur, “but sadly, Microsoft has effective building security.”

Royally Spammed: A Fast Food Story

Today’s blog post comes to you in epistolary form. A few days ago, I received an e-mail from the Burger King corporation entitled, “What Do You Love Most About Burger King’s New Fall Menu?” 

A thought-provoking question deserved a comprehensive answer. This was my response:

Dear Burger King,

Wow, what do I love most about your new fall menu? That’s a tough one, but let me give it a shot.

First, before I gush over what you’re rolling out for autumn (can’t wait for those pumpkin spice cheeseburgers!), let me tell you what I love about Burger King in general.

As you know, burgers are actually small hunks of flesh that have been removed from unsuspecting cows (no worries, I’m told they’re almost always dead at that point), ground up, processed, and reconstituted into patty form.

Some people (and, I suspect, most cows) find that whole meat hacking business distasteful, but here is the genius of your marketing department. You took this bit of messy necessity and conjoined it with the idea of monarchy. Who doesn’t love kings? (Well, 18th century French peasants, I guess. But how much fast food were they really consuming?)

For me, nothing brings me closer to that world of courtly glamor and intrigue than chowing down on a Whopper, crown perched majestically on my head. Heck, sometimes I wear the crown long after the dining experience. I’ve been known to mow my lawn decked out in your finery. (Note from experience: crown not recommended in the shower.) Have you considered some sort of disposable paper cape to go with it? Just spit-balling.

Burger King. Close your eyes and say it couple of times out loud, slowly. Let it roll off your tongue. It’s got nice mouth feel, doesn’t it?

And how many folks out there know about your environmental stand? “What?” the doubters would say, “Burger King, environmentally friendly?” Yes indeed. Look at the bright orange and yellow you’ve chosen for your company colors. Aside from traffic cones and police tape, those hues normally never leave the crayon box. Most kids prefer the boring blues, purples, reds and greens, so guess where the orange and yellow crayons end up? Yep: the trash heap.

So thank you, Burger King. Recycling the ugly hues is your way of saying, “By golly, we’re better than a landfill.”

As for the fall menu, I confess I haven’t had a chance to examine it as closely as I want to. But whatever you’ve dreamed up, I hope lots of mayo is involved! I know some traditionalists out there are turned off by Burger King’s liberal use of la mayonnaise. (It’s a French word, which automatically says classy, but I’m sure your marketing people knew that.) But this is the modern age we’re living in, and mayo is the grease that oils the wheels of progress!

Besides, what doesn’t taste better with a layer of something slippery slathered on top? From your onion rings to your breakfast CROISSAN’WICH (more French! Trés chic, Burger King) to your intriguingly named Chicken Fries and your Dutch Apple Pie, mayo is the secret sauce that adds that Henry the Eighth level of luxury we’re all striving for.

So thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. And let me say that I for one, salute you—nay sir, I bow to you—the Burger King.


PS. Please remove me from your mailing list.