Books History

Review of “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry,” by Jaquie McNish and Sean Silcoff

To paraphrase a wise man , Failure is a GPS: it tells you the distance between where you are and where you want to be. Previous failure I’ve read about — Bell Labs and Alcatel-Lucent — have been reborn in the form of Nokia. And success makes one fat and lazy. General Motors, the Google of its day, is a warning to anyone facing a lifetime of victories.

It is with this context that I read Losing the Signal: The Untold Story of the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry. Formerly named “Research in Motion,” the company made a portable paging and email device that created text-based communication on the go. It dominated the era of before phones and PDAs converged, dominating relatively niche players like US Robotics‘ “Palm” product and Microsoft’s PocketPC.

The end came quickly — so quickly the story almost seems out of order. The world of battery-saving, highly secure, data-efficient devices was nuked from space by the Apple iPhone launch. Unlike Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who famously laughed the device off, co-CEO Mike Lazarids had personally disassembled an early iPhone and understood the qualitative difference between it and any other machine on the market.

The reason is that until the bitter end — until Blackberry abandoned what it once was and hopped first to QNX and then Android — it was a better phone. At least for the core scenarios that once dominated the market: long-lasting battery, low data usage, high security. For developing countries with poor infrastructure, these were required. Thus, the collapse of Research in Motion / Blackberry as a global enterprise was masked for a while by phenomenal success in large, developing countries.

Authors McNish and Silcoff weave this corporate history in with tales of the co-CEOs who once lead Research in Motion: Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis. The “sales guy” and “engineering guy” respectively, the team behind the company’s explosive growth. For a book that seems to have had tremendous access to these two men, the portraits of them are not flattering. Balsillie seems like a bully and near-con, whose created hostile relationships with both suppliers and carriers that contributed to the company’s swift collapse. Lazaridis, by all accounts an excellent hardware engineer, had limited understanding of software even years after overseeing the development of Blackberry’s OS, and bizarrely attempted to rewrite the entire software stack on QNX that had never worked in mobile before.

A last point, but an important one: the story of Blackberry intersects at several moments with the University of Waterloo, a large research university located nearby. During the Second World War, the university instituted an a repeating cycle of classes and outside work for students, initially to help with the war effort but rapidly used to bootstrap an educated engineering workforce. It’s a great educational model, and one I wish Blackberry could have helped spread to the United States.

I listened to Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry on unabridged audible.

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